Three-way lead on opening day of British Open golf

By V. Krishnaswamy, IANS,

Southport (Britain) : In the first Major without the participation of Tiger woods since 1996, the top stars tried their best in testing conditions at the 137th British Open at the Royal Birkdale Golf Club here, but three lesser known names shared the opening day’s lead on a windy and wet Thursday.

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As the leading trio Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell, American Rocco Mediate and Australian Robert Allenby, had identical birdie-birdie finishes for 69 each, the big names – Ernie Els (80), Vijay Singh (80) and Phil Mickelson (79) suffered a nightmare. But the legends, 53-year-old Greg Norman, two times winner at the Open, and 58-year-old Tom Watson, a five-time winner, kept the flag flying for ‘Golden Oldies’ as they turned the clock back with a 70 and 74 each.

Norman won the second of his two Opens in 1986 and Watson took his fifth and last Open at this very venue exactly 25 years ago in 1983.

The scores seemed to improve when the rain eased after almost eight and a half hours of drizzle and strong wind from the start of play in the morning. The wind at times was as strong as 55 miles per hours.

The news on Friday’s weather is not so great either with wind and rain expected to be back in the morning.

The only man to have been two-under at one stage, Adam Scott, dropped two late bogeys on 16th and par-5 17th, the latter being the easiest hole of the day producing most birdies, 54, during the 14 hours of play.

Scott ended at even par 70, but giving him company was Norman, who turned the clock, with a very tidy 70. Also tied fourth with them with a 70 was Bart Bryant of the US.

Despite the absence of the World’s No. 1 player, Woods, the other top stars took a battering. Mickelson finished at nine-over par 79 including a triple bogey on the sixth where he suffered a ‘lost ball”. Els had the worst start of his career and Fijian Vijay Singh, the last man to have held the World No. 1 position in the Woods era, was left repeating the word ‘miserable’. They will all need great rounds to stay on over the weekend, but Sandy Lyle, the 1985 champion, left even before that, withdrawing after 10 holes at which stage he was 11-over.

However, defending champion, Padraig Harrington, who had said that he would not have played this week if it were not for the fact that this is the British Open, made light of the wrist pain that hindered his Open preparations, shot four-over 74.

Allenby, who despite having earned more than $1 million for seven years in a row has not quite translated his consistency on the PGA Tour into more titles than four, the last of which came in 2001. But on Thursday he had a sensational back nine with four birdies and no bogeys as he roared back from three-over to one-under.

Mediate, who till his 91-hole epic with Tiger Woods at the US Open last month was just a journeyman, finished birdie-birdie to grab a share of the lead.

McDowell, who last week won the Scottish Open for his second win of the season – the first came at the expense of Jeev Milkha Singh, who he beat in a play-off in Ballantine’s Championship in Korea – seemed to be in great nick.

Scott, whose caddie, Tony Navarro, was the one Norman had for years before allowing him to start the job for the younger Australian, was one-under through 10 holes and then two-under after 15. But a disappointing finish saw him drop down the ladder.

There was a bunch of players at one-over 71 and it included Canadian Mike Weir and South African Retief Goosen, who took contrasting routes to a share of the early clubhouse lead. Later they were joined by Frenchman Gregory Havret, American Jim Fury and Swede Frederik Jacobson among others.

Weir and Havret were the only ones to land eagles on the first day and they did so on the 17th during their 71s, while Goosen looking good for most past of the day had three bogeys and one birdie in the last four holes.

At the US Open where a one-legged Tiger Woods won his 14th Major, Goosen had ironically finished 14th but had turned the spotlight on himself with a remark in poor taste suggesting the American World No.1 may have even ‘faked’ his injury while winning the US Open. A few days later with criticism mounting, Goosen apologised admitting he had “put his foot in his mouth”.

On Thursday the two-time US Open champion Goosen avoided any questions on the issue and just said, “It was tough out there, I had to battle through the day.”

Norman, who three weeks married Chris Evert, was a couple of days pulled up by the police for talking to his wife on the mobile while driving to Birkdale earlier in the week to practice. On Thursday Norman opened with a bogey but then found a birdie on third and later bogeyed the 13th and picked a birdie on 17th during his 70.

In a summer, when everything Spanish has been the flavour with the Euro triumph and Rafael Nadal’s ending Roger Federer’s dominance at Wimbledon, pre-tournament favourite Sergio Garcia and Miguel Angel Jimenez, began their quest to try and add the British Open golf to that list. Both fought their way back after none-too-good starts. They finished at 72 each after being two-over after six holes for Garcia and three-over for Jimenez after seven holes.