Zach Johnson leads at Muirfield, but Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson aren't far behind

Zach Johnson leads at Muirfield, but Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson aren’t far behind

Zach Johnson leads by himself after an opening-round five-under 66.
Thomas Lovelock / Sports Illustrated

GULLANE, Scotland – You would think Tiger Woods is Muirfield-averse, what with all the talk about the 2002 British Open here and the freakish third-round storm that lashed the course and sent Woods reeling with an 81.

Phil Mickelson finished joint runner-up at the St. George Open in 2011 and third at Troon in '04, but he has been dismissed as a poor links player. He hits it too high, can't play in the wind, story, story, story.

Yet there they were, each man having shot two-under par 69 in Thursday's first round of the 142nd British Open on a brown and brick-hard Muirfield that recalled the '06 Open at Hoylake. They are the biggest names amid the pack chasing Zach Johnson, who eagled the par-5 5th hole and shot a five-under 66.

"Very difficult conditions," said Mickelson, who three-putted the last for a bogey while going out in the morning wave. "Playing early at least gave us a fighting chance."

Mickelson lightly criticized the R&A's set-up, specifically the pin placement on the par-4 8th hole. Ian Poulter (72) was more outspoken on Twitter after some putts drifted well past the hole on dry, brown and near-dead grass.

"I think what you have to pay attention to, frankly, is color," said Johnson, who lost in a playoff at last week's John Deere Classic. "If it's green, it's a little slower. If it's brown, it's going to continue to roll."

Rafael Cabrera-Bello and 56-year-old Mark O'Meara each shot 67, while Miguel Angel Jimenez, Dustin Johnson, Shiv Kapur, 54-year-old Tom Lehman, and Brandt Snedeker were two back.

"I've seen the most horrendous conditions you can think about playing golf out there," said O'Meara, the 1998 Open champion, who, like Woods, was caught in the worst of the third-round squall in '02. "But today the wind really didn't blow that hard. I understand the course is dry. It's firm. It's fast. And the greens got pretty quick for an Open Championship. But in my estimation, I don't know, I didn't see it being unfair."

Zach Johnson spoke in monotone after his round, not because he didn't play well, with four birdies and an eagle against a single bogey, but because there's a lot of golf left. He's 37 and has won nine times on Tour, including the 2007 Masters. He knows one good round does not a tournament make. Yet his record at the Open gives plenty of reason for optimism. He missed his first three cuts from 2004 through '06, but has made the last six and is coming off a career-best ninth-place tie last year at Lytham.

"Lytham was very demanding off the tee box," he said, "which is good for me. And I feel like I'm driving it as good now, if not better, than last year."

Muirfield claimed plenty of casualties. Sir Nick Faldo said the course was "like glass" and shot 79 despite hitting "only one bad shot." U.S. Open champion Justin Rose (75), pre-tournament favorite Graeme McDowell (75) and former No. 1s Rory McIlroy (79) and Luke Donald (80) also struggled.

"It's all mental out there," said McIlroy, who at one point putted into a bunker and shot seven-over 42 on the back nine. "I just need to concentrate, obviously. But sometimes I feel like I'm walking around out there and I'm unconscious."

Woods, who is gunning for his first major victory since the 2008 U.S. Open, got off to a terrible start, hooking his drive off the 1st tee into the deep rough and taking an unplayable lie. He scrambled for bogey and quickly steadied himself, playing the next eight holes in even par. He birdied three of four holes to start the back nine and came home in three-under 32.

"Are they going to put some water on it?" Woods said, speaking for many on the condition of the course. "They put some water on it for the practice rounds. When we came out this morning, there was moisture on [the greens] but they dried out this afternoon. And we're supposed to get a different wind [Friday]."

Woods was playing for the first time since a 32nd-place finish at last month's U.S. Open, after which he revealed he had been playing with a sore left elbow. He said he feels fine and was pleased to finish the round under par on a course that got tougher as the day went on.

"It's about as fast as Hoylake was," he said, referencing the most recent of three his Open victories, in '06. "But there's knee-high rough here. And plus this golf course changes directions a lot. A lot of different directions, a lot of different shaped shots you have to hit. Hoylake was pretty simple in that regard."

Mickelson, 43, is trying to replicate a feat he pulled off in '06, when he last won back-to-back tournaments, the AT&T Classic and the Masters. Lefty is coming off a playoff victory at the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart last week and is trying to win the claret jug for the first time in his 20th Open start. He is putting well. He's hitting fairways. Now, he said, he's just hoping that tournament officials can "let go of their ego" and give players a fair test.

"Even without any wind," Mickelson said, "it's beyond difficult."

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