No rust for the rested: Jordan Spieth grabs co-lead at British Open

July 20, 2017

SOUTHPORT, England — Jordan Spieth, all smiles, chomped a piece of gum as he answered the media’s questions.

Hours earlier, he’d started this 146th British Open with a stellar round — “a nine [out of 10] across the board,” he declared — and he couldn’t risk removing the gum. Like most athletes, golfers can be a superstitious bunch, especially when something is working.

For Spieth, everything clicked on Thursday.

The 23-year-old opened with a bogey-free five-under 65 in his first round at Royal Birkdale and shared the early lead with U.S. Open winner Brooks Koepka. Matt Kuchar later joined them for a three-way tie at the top after the opening day. The leaderboard does not lack for star power.

Spieth made birdies on 2, 8 and 9 to turn in three under, then kicked in birdies on 14 and 17.

“Cameron offered me a piece of gum, and I was one under through two, and I thought I better keep it in and it’s still in now,” Spieth said. “It’s probably about time for a new piece.”

With temperatures in the low 60s and a gentle breeze that never topped 10-15 mph, Birkdale was gettable. Rain and stronger, gustier winds are expected Friday.

“I thought today’s round was extremely important, as they all are, but given the forecast coming in, I thought you really needed to be in the red today,” Spieth said.

Spieth showed no rust after taking a three-week break from the Tour. This was his first start since he won the Travelers at the beginning of the month (his second victory this season). He hit only five fairways, but compensated by finding 15 greens in regulation. Some spots in the rough are more manageable than others, and Spieth was able to find them. He also saved par from the bunker on 16, keeping a blemish-free round intact. He called that splashy sand shot his best of the day, and his 65 one of the five best major rounds he’s ever played.

“It could be a lot more significant in three days’ time than I would consider it right now,” he said.

This is the 10th Open at Birkdale, and the roster of former champs here — Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller, Tom Watson — is impressive. After one round, this tournament is also trending that way.

Spieth set the pace with his sublime 65, and Koepka holed out from the bunker on 17 to match it. Some of golf’s best majorless players are all in the mix: Kuchar (65), Paul Casey (66), Ian Poulter (67), Justin Thomas (67), Hideki Matsuyama (68) and Jon Rahm (69). While a handful of other favorites — Dustin Johnson (71), Rory McIlroy (71), Rickie Fowler (71) and Phil Mickelson (73) — failed to break par.

McIlroy had a disastrous start. He was five over through six but birdied four holes on the back (including three of his final four) to salvage his day and stay only six off the pace. McIlroy credited his caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald, with helping him rebound.

“He said, ‘You’re Rory McIlroy, what are you doing?'” according to McIlroy. “At that point I mumbled and said, ‘Whatever.’ But it helped. It definitely helped.”

The reigning major champ, Koepka, wasn’t sluggish despite a lengthy layoff. Thursday was his first competitive round since his heroics at Erin Hills four weeks ago. In fact, he only picked up a club twice between his win and arriving here for Open: once for a round with his manager and a second time for a photo shoot.

“If I’m mentally recharged, I’ve done the same thing for years [with my swing],” said Koepka, who is no stranger to links golf or British weather, having cut his teeth on the Challenge tour, the European tour’s minor-league circuit. “So it shouldn’t take too long to get back into it. But it was nice to get over here early and just kind of get a feel for the golf course and just kind of play again.”

Kuchar teed off in the afternoon and was on pace to storm past the leaders, momentarily putting the golf world on 62 Watch. He shot a five-under 29 on the front to tie Spieth and Koepka atop the leaderboard, but cooled off with nine pars on the back.

“The back side I stayed incredibly aggressive, particularly off the tee,” Kuchar said. “I had a couple of opportunities that I wasn’t able to convert, but sitting here at five under par, I’m awfully pleased.”

Poulter, playing in his first major since the 2016 Masters, had to make it through a qualifier just to get here, and the past year has been a rollercoaster ride for the 41-year-old Englishman. He’s battled injuries and struggled to find his game. He also dealt with the bizarre incident of losing his PGA Tour card only to regain it days later based on a points error.

This is his first major since the 2016 Masters. He finished second at the Open here in 2008.

“I’ve definitely had some low spots in the last 18 months,” Poulter said. “I was getting very down. It’s easy to be down when you feel you’re a great player and all of a sudden you’re hampered with a bit of injury. You’re not getting the results you want. It’s very easy to slide away.”

Poulter, Spieth and Koepka will start their second round on Friday afternoon, which is when the rain is expected to arrive. The heavier stuff will come later in the evening.

“Tomorrow is going to be brutal,” Poulter said. “And today was — it was good to post a red number, considering what we’ve got coming tomorrow.”