GULLANE, Scotland — A blue sky and a gentle breeze usually means ripe scoring conditions at the British Open. Just not on the brown links of Muirfield.
Zach Johnson handled it better than anyone Thursday. Helped along by a 45-foot eagle putt and only one bogey despite trouble lurking around every pot bunker, Johnson had a 5-under 66 for a one-shot lead, the first time he’s been atop the leaderboard at any major since he rallied to win the Masters six years ago.
Tiger Woods more than survived the late end of the draw, after the sun had thoroughly baked out the crispy greens and allowed only eight of the 20 rounds under par. He knocked one putt clear off the green, but 10 one-putts — most of them for pars — carried him to a 69, a good start in his bid to end his five-year drought in the majors.
“The golf course progressively got more dried out and more difficult as we played,” Woods said. “And I’m very pleased to shoot anything even par or better.”
And for all the talk about Muirfield’s men-only membership, at least the club doesn’t discriminate against age.
Mark O’Meara, the 56-year-old who won his claret jug in 1998 at Royal Birkdale, shot a 67 and nearly tied Johnson for the lead until his 25-foot birdie putt on the 18th took a hard spin out of the cup. Another former champion, 54-year-old Tom Lehman, opened with a 68.
It was an eclectic group who broke par, from major champions to players making their British Open debut. What they all had in common was finding a way to get through a firm, fast and frightening test at Muirfield that figures to get even harder if the Royal & Ancient doesn’t put some water on the links course.
Phil Mickelson opened with a 69 and felt like he got off easy by playing in the morning. Mickelson was concerned about some hole locations being too close to the edge of slopes, and he pleaded with the R&A to let go of its ego and “just set the course up the way the best players can win.”
Some of the best did just fine.
“Anytime you shoot under par in an Open — or a major, for that matter — you have to be putting at least somewhat decent,” Johnson said. “And I putted great. I made some nice birdie putts and obviously that one for eagle. But I struck some really nice, solid par putts. That’s what you’ve got to do to stay in it.”
Rafael Cabrera-Bello of Spain joined O’Meara at 67, while the group at 68 included Dustin Johnson and Brandt Snedeker, who each have contended on Sunday over the last two years in the Open. Two-time major champion Angel Cabrera, who lost in a playoff at the Masters in April, and 19-year-old Jordan Spieth were in the group at 69.
It was a beautiful day along the Firth of Forth. And it was hard work.
No one felt safe until the ball stopped bouncing along the crusty fairways, and no one was sure when that would happen.
“I haven’t seen anything like this,” said Snedeker, who tied the 36-hole Open record a year ago at Lytham. “I’ve played in, I think, five Opens. This is completely new to me — foreign to see a 2-iron going 300 yards. You have got to be wary of how you’re shaping your golf ball, and what shot selections you’re using on the greens.”
O’Meara thought he hit a reasonable bunker shot on the 15th until it kept rolling — and rolling — off the green and into another bunker.
“They get so glassy and crispy around the holes,” Graeme McDowell, who played with Woods, said after a 75. “You literally can see 300 footprints around the hole from all the players and caddies that have been out there today. They just get really shiny, and really glassy. I couldn’t single out a pin that I thought was unfair. But if you got on the wrong side of them, they could make you look very, very silly.”
Yes, there was plenty of that.
Rory McIlroy never looked comfortable, and it caught up with him. After missing left of the 12th green, he chipped it up the slope and watched it roll back down to his feet. His next chip was long and he wound up with double bogey. On the 15th hole, his putt to the back pin rolled well past the hole and into a bunker for another double bogey. A bogey-bogey finish gave him a 79, his highest score at the Open since that 80 in the vicious wind of St. Andrews in 2010.
At least he had some company.
Luke Donald, another former No. 1 player in the world, had a double bogey and a triple bogey two holes apart on the back nine. He shot 80. Nick Faldo celebrated his 56th birthday with a return to the links where he won two of his three claret jugs. He shot a 79, but still enjoyed the nerves and the emotions of seeing the gallery lining both sides of the fairway in his first Open in three years.
Lloyd Saltman got the 142nd Open off to a dubious start when it took him three tee shots to get his ball in play. He made a quadruple-bogey eight. Some eight hours later, Woods hooked his opening tee shot so far left, and into grass so deep, that he took a penalty shot for an unplayable lie. Woods hit into a bunker, but blasted out to 4 feet to escape with bogey. He made four birdies in his round, including a 25-foot bender behind the 13th hole. But it was the clutch putting that kept him going.
Dustin Johnson played the three par 5s in 4-under, yet what made him smile was a par. From left of the par-3 seventh green, he chipped between two bunkers and watched the ball ride the rounded face of one, roll precariously near the top of another and settled 4 feet away.
“That,” he said, “was sweet.”
Mickelson, coming off a win at the Scottish Open on a links-styled course at Castle Stuart, rolled in three big putts early in his round and kept it together with great lag putts for par when he ran into what he called “technical difficulties.”
He rallied with a pair of late birdies, only for his last attempt from 15 feet above the hole on the 18th to slide some 6 feet by for a three-putt bogey. Even so, Lefty was pleased to be done as the greens turned brown.
“I got very lucky to play early today because as the day wore on and we got to the back nine, about a third of every green started to die and become brown,” he said. “And the pins were very edgy, on the slopes. The guys that played early had a huge, huge break. Because even without any wind, it’s beyond difficult.”
It was tough all day.
Ninety-eight players in the 156-man field had at least a double bogey on their scorecards. Former U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover might have summed it up best when he took to Twitter after opening with an 80.
“Muirfield 1, Me 0.”