SOUTHPORT, England – Forget the leaderboard. No one dominated at Royal Birkdale like the whipping wind and soaking rain.
The British Open got off to a chilly, soggy start Thursday, with storms rolling off the Irish Sea turning the historic links course into a house of horrors.
Phil Mickelson lost a ball in the tangly rough. Sandy Lyle and Rich Beem both gave up. Vijay Singh signed for an 80. So did Ernie Els.
Turns out, Tiger Woods couldn’t have picked a better time to miss his first major since 1996. He was back home in the States, all warm and comfy as he recovered from knee surgery.
Certainly, Kenny Perry must have been chuckling to himself after taking all that grief for deciding to skip the oldest of the majors because he didn’t think it suited his game.
“It got to the point where you just don’t care,” moaned Pat Perez, who shot a 12-over 82. “Now I know why Kenny stayed home.”
Nearly nine hours after Craig Parry hit the opening shot of the tournament, only two players were in the red: Australia’s Adam Scott and Sweden’s Peter Hanson, both at 1 under but still playing the front side. Seven others were at even par, all early in their rounds.
“Par is irrelevant on a day like this,” said Parry, who struggled to a 77. “You can only laugh and take it on the chin. The golf course is going to win.”
Two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen and 2003 Masters winner Mike Weir were the leaders in the clubhouse, both shooting 71.
The South African overcame a double-bogey at No. 6 and somehow managed to put up four birdies in brutal conditions that made golf’s oldest championship a stern test even without Woods looming over the field. Weir also had a double-bogey, but countered it with an eagle at No. 17.
“One of the best” was how Goosen summed up his round. “It was a battle out there.”
Despite a sore wrist, defending champion Padraig Harrington got off to a solid start with a 74. He would have been even closer to the lead if not for a bogey-bogey finish, but was pleased with his round given that he seriously considered withdrawing just a day earlier.
“I think the bad day helped,” Harrington said. “You had no time to think about anything else but your next shot.”
Perez awoke at 3:30 a.m. to get in a workout. He knew right away that it wasn’t going to be a very pleasant round.
“It was raining and howling,” he recalled. “I said, ‘This is going to be some kind of day.’”
The forecast looked more promising in the afternoon, and the rain lightened up for late starters such as Sergio Garcia, who lost to Harrington a year ago in a playoff after missing a 10-foot putt on the 72nd hole.
Five-time Open champion Tom Watson birdied the first hole to send a roar through the shivering gallery and went on to shoot 74. But it was a miserable, short-lived tournament for another former winner. Lyle, who won the Open at Royal St. George’s in 1985, pulled out after playing the first 10 holes in an 11-over 49.
“I felt I could do myself more harm than good,” said the 50-year-old Lyle, who plays his first Senior Open tournament at Troon next week. “It could take three weeks to recover from this.”
Though inclement weather is as much a part of the Open as the claret jug, Lyle said he’d never played an early morning round in such miserable conditions.
“It was just constant rain all the time,” he said. “It was difficult keeping my hands dry and, of course, I wear glasses, so that didn’t help. It’s a brutal golf course.”
Beem called it quits after shooting a 12-over 46 on the front side. His first seven holes went like this: bogey, quadruple-bogey, bogey, bogey, bogey, bogey, double-bogey.
Harrington injured his right wrist last weekend and was limited to a half-round of practice during the week.
The gallery groaned when he knocked his first shot into the rough, putting extra strain on the wrist with his next swing. But Harrington coped well with the pain, especially after getting over some early jitters.
“I’m quite happy,” he said. “I haven’t played my way out of the tournament.”
Most players were struggling. Mickelson, whose game isn’t well-suited for links golf, lost his ball in the rough at No. 6, had to take a penalty and wound up with a triple bogey; Lefty’s score of 79 was the worst start of his Open career. Els, considered one of the favorites with Garcia, fell apart after the turn with a miserable stretch with three straight 6s. Singh took the opposite tack, playing the first 11 holes at 10 over, managing only two pars.
Others persevered. English favorite Justin Rose, who memorably finished fourth as a 17-year-old amateur in the last Open played at Royal Birkdale in 1998, struggled through the front nine at 4 over but was even on the back for a 74. David Duval, whose career fell apart after his 2001 Open win at Lytham, put himself in contention with a surprising 73.
“It’s been a long, hard day,” Rose said. “It’s just a matter of digging in and scrapping it out.”
Parry, looking like a penguin dressed head-to-toe in a cream-and-black rain suit and ski cap, hit the opening shot down the middle of the fairway, between the pot bunkers. That was one of his few highlights.
“It was an honor to hit the first tee shot,” the Australian said. “But after that, it got really hard.”
At least no one had to worry about Woods, who captured his 14th career major with a playoff win at the U.S. Open, then shut it down for the rest of the year to recover from knee surgery.