SOUTHPORT – If there was ever a time the daunting course at Royal Birkdale was “gettable,” it was on Thursday, when bright sunshine, putting surfaces softened by rain, and moderate wind — especially in the afternoon — allowed for some low scores for the world’s best golfers. Americans Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka and Matt Kuchar took advantage of the relatively benign conditions while forging 5-under par 65s to assume the lead after the first round at the 146th Open Championship, being contested at Royal Birkdale in Southport, England.
That was just two shots off the all-time Open record at Royal Birkdale.
Paul Casey of England and Charl Schwartzel of South Africa were a stroke back and tied for fourth after shooting 66s. Ian Poulter and Richard Bland of England, Americans Justin Thomas and Charley Hoffman, Austin Connelly of Canada and Rafael Cabrera-Bello of Spain are tied for sixth after 67s.
Stuart Manley of Wales, Alex Noren of Sweden, Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, Sung-Hoon Kang of South Korea, Martin Laird and Richie Ramsay of Scotland, Ernie Els of South Africa, Joost Luiten of the Netherlands joined five Americans — James Hahn, David Lipsky, Daniel Berger, Bubba Watson and Kevin Na — another shot in arrears after firing 68s.
Defending champion Henrik Stenson of Sweden, Jason Day, Marc Leishman and Adam Scott of Australia, Andrew “Beef” Johnston and Matthew Fitzpatrick of England and Jon Rahm of Spain were another stroke back at 69.
There were no rounds without a bogey in the 72 holes of competition the last time the Open was played at Royal Birkdale in 2008, but Spieth made sure that didn’t happen again with a rousing performance on Thursday.
Spieth’s bogeyless effort in the morning wave on the demanding course featured five birdies and a knee-knocking, eighth-foot putt for par on the par-4 16th. Spieth, the 2015, U.S. Open champion, found just five of 14 fairways in the heather-lined course but still hit 15 of the 18 greens in regulation to lead the morning wave in that stat along with fellow American Russell Henley.
“It was a really good start — everything was strong,” Spieth said afterward. “I’d give it a ‘nine’ across the board for everything — tee balls, ball-striking, short game and putting — so things are in check. It’s just about keeping it consistent.
“But I couldn’t have done much better today. I missed three greens, but one of them I was putting from the fringe. So essentially missed two greens in some 15-mile-an-hour winds. This course has a lot of crosswinds, so it’s tough to judge how far the ball is going to fly depending on what shot you play. So that speaks a lot to the ball-striking of the day.”
Koepka, this season’s U.S. Open champ, had four birdies on his card while playing in the morning wave and added an eagle out of the bunker on the par-5 17th to offset his only bogey on the demanding 16th. He needed just 21 putts on his round despite finding only nine of the 18 greens in regulation.
“I’d say I hit five or six drivers today,” Koepka said. “The wind was blowing pretty good and I’m not trying to overpower this golf course. If you get holes downwind like 18 or No. 8 or 17, too, you kind of play the hole backwards, which to me is links golf.
“Off the tee you’re trying to avoid all the bunkers or if it’s got a lot of bunkers, you’re just trying to put one of them in play. You just try to take the best chance you have of putting the ball in the fairway or on the grass. And that’s the big thing.”
Kuchar, who has never won a major championship, played in the afternoon wave and reeled off four birdies in his first six holes before making the turn at 5-under 29. He parred the entire back nine to claim a piece of the lead.
Rickie Fowler, world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, and Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland finished with 71s.
Royal Birkdale claimed its share of victims as well, namely two-time Open Champion Padraig Harrington of Ireland, current Masters champion Sergio Garcia of Spain, and Americans Patrick Reed, Kevin Chappell and Phil Mickelson, all of whom are in a pack of golfers at 73, eight shots off the leader’s pace.
Former Open champions John Daly and Darren Clarke finished with a 74 and 75, respectively, while Zach Johnson, the Open winner in 2015, struggled to a 75.
NOTES: Heavy rain and strong winds are in the forecast for Friday’s second round. Temperatures will hover in the low 60s and sustained winds of 15-25 mph are expected with gusts as high as 40 mph. There is a 90 percent chance of precipitation, according to the BBC…Phil Mickelson had a birdie-less round on Thursday, the first time that’s happened to him since 1999 in the first round at Carnoustie, 18 years ago…England’s Paul Casey turns 40 on Friday a day after shooting 66. “Apparently life begins at 40 so maybe that’s a good omen for me,” he said… The R&A took a look a potential rules violation by Jon Rahm of Spain when he moved a long strand of grass while in the rough on the 17th hole, but decided Rahm’s ball had not moved. He faced a potential two-shot penalty if it had… Charley Hoffman holed his approach out of the rough on the par-4 first hole for an eagle, the very first two ever recorded at Birkdale’s daunting opening hole