All-Amer­i­can fla­vor

Spieth, Koepka, Kuchar sprint to lead

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS - Amer­i­can Brooks Koepka

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 the leader­board hav­ing a strong red, white and blue pres­ence with the first round was over.

Jor­dan Spieth, chomp­ing away on gum as he watched one putt af­ter an­other pour into the cen­ter 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 con­sec­u­tive 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 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 to­day, 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 67 and was in a group that in­cluded Ian Poul­ter and Rafa Cabr­era Bello.

De­fend­ing cham­pion Hen­rik Sten­son, who played with Spieth, had a 69. 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 and-picked up a two-putt birdie on the 17th and nar­rowly missed a 7-foot birdie putt on the last hole. 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.

John Daly (Dar­danelle, Arkansas Ra­zor­backs) opened with a 4-over 74 and sits in a tie for 106th place in the 156-player field.

AP/ALAS­TAIR GRANT

blasts out of the bunker on the 18th hole at Royal Birk­dale dur­ing Thurs­day’s open­ing round of the Bri­tish Open. He was tied with fel­low Amer­i­can’s Jor­dan Spieth and Matt Kuchar for the first-round lead.

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