U.S trio opens The Open on top

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - DOUG FER­GU­SON

SOUTHPORT, ENGLAND — The wind off the Ir­ish Sea pushed away the rain clouds and bathed Royal Birk­dale in sun­shine, Stars and Stripes.

The Bri­tish Open be­gan Thurs­day with an all-Amer­i­can flavour.

Jordan Spi­eth, chomp­ing away on gum as he watched one putt af­ter an­other pour into the cen­tre of the cup, worked some bunker magic of his own late in the round to keep his card filled only with birdies and pars for a 5-un­der 65.

U.S. Open cham­pion Brooks Koepka, with no com­pe­ti­tion and barely any prac­tice since cap­tur­ing his first ma­jor a month ago, ran off three straight birdies and holed a tough shot from a pot bunker for ea­gle on the par-5 17th hole for a 5-un­der 65.

Join­ing them was Matt Kuchar, who first en­deared him­self to th­ese Bri­tish fans as a 19-year-old am­a­teur in 1998 at Royal Birk­dale. Kuchar tied the course record with a 29 on the front nine, only to fall into a rou­tine of pars the rest of the way. He still shot 65, his best score ever in a ma­jor.

They had a one-shot lead over Paul Casey and Charl Schwartzel on a day that started nasty and ended with 39 play­ers break­ing par. The big­gest ques­tion af­ter a long day on the links was what was in store for Fri­day, when high wind and oc­ca­sional show­ers were in the fore­cast.

“I thought to­day’s round was ex­tremely im­por­tant, as they all are,” Spi­eth said, atop the leader­board at a ma­jor for the first time since last year’s Masters. “But given the fore­cast com­ing in, I thought you re­ally needed to be in the red to­day. You can cer­tainly make up ground in a round to­mor­row, and we’ll see it hap­pen. But be­ing able to kind of play with shots, or play a lit­tle more con­ser­va­tive be­cause you don’t try to do too much on a day like to­mor­row, that’s nice and very help­ful.”

Dustin John­son and Rory McIl­roy fall into that cat­e­gory.

John­son, the No. 1 player who hasn’t played the week­end at a ma­jor since the Bri­tish Open last year, man­aged only one birdie on a de­cent day for scor­ing and shot 71. McIl­roy also shot 71 and was re­lieved. Com­ing off three missed cuts in his last four events, he was 5 over through six holes when his cad­die gave him a pep talk. McIl­roy closed with three birdies over the last four holes to stay in the game.

Phil Mick­el­son failed to make a birdie, the first time that has hap­pened in a ma­jor in five years, and shot 73.

Kuchar was the only one at 65 who played in the af­ter­noon. The wind re­mained strong, though the course was man­age­able for ev­ery­one who stayed out of bunkers and deep grass and who holed putts.

“I watched some of the golf this morn­ing on TV. It looked aw­fully chal­leng­ing,” Kuchar said. “It looked like any­thing un­der par was go­ing to be a good score. Seemed like the later your tee time, the bet­ter draw you got . ... For me, to start my Bri­tish Open with a 29 on the front nine is a great way to start.”

Charley Hoff­man had the best start of all, hol­ing out from the rough on the daunt­ing open­ing hole for an ea­gle. He was poised to join the lead­ers when he reached 5 un­der with a birdie on the 15th, only to drop shots on the next two holes. Hoff­man shot 69 and was in a group that in­cluded Ian Poul­ter and Rafa Cabr­era Bello.

De­fend­ing cham­pion Hen­rik Sten­son, who played with Spi­eth, had a 71. Sten­son also played with Spi­eth the first two rounds of the 2015 Masters that the Texan won wire-to-wire and knew what to ex­pect.

“He was rolling it su­perbly that week, and I don’t think it was that far be­hind to­day,” Sten­son said.

But his best shot was with his feet in the sand. Spi­eth was in thick rough to the right of the 16th fair­way when his shot crept into the back of a pot bunker. Not only was the ball on a slight slope, the rake marks left his ball be­tween two ridges.

“This is dan­ger­ous,” he said to his cad­die.

He aimed to the right of the hole to avoid it go­ing off the green on the other side and into an­other bunker, and it came off per­fectly about 10 feet away.

“That was awe­some,” were his next words to his cad­die.

He made the par putt — Spi­eth made a lot of putts on picked up a two-putt birdie on the 17th and nar­rowly missed a 7-foot birdie putt on the last. It was his best start in a ma­jor since he shot 66 at the Masters a year ago. Spi­eth rated it among the top five or six rounds he has ever played in a ma­jor, not bad for some­one who came close to the Grand Slam two years ago.

“I couldn’t have done much bet­ter to­day,” he said.

Royal Birk­dale was much more kind than it was nine years ago in rag­ing wind and rain.

The 146th Open be­gan in cool tem­per­a­tures, a light rain and a strong wind.

Mark O’Meara, a win­ner at Royal Birk­dale in 1998 who is play­ing in his last Bri­tish Open, hit the open­ing tee shot. And then he hit an­other one. O’Meara’s first shot was lost in the gorse, he made a quadru­ple-bo­gey 8 and was on his way to an 81.

PETER BYRNE, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Canada’s Austin Con­nelly is in a tie for sixth af­ter the first round of the Bri­tish Open at Royal Birk­dale in Southport, England.

STUART FRANKLIN, GETTY IMAGES

Jordan Spi­eth of the United States re­acts af­ter his ap­proach from the rough on the fifth hole.

PETER MOR­RI­SON, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

North­ern Ire­land’s Rory McIl­roy plays out of the bunker on the sev­enth hole.

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