GULLANE, Scotland — Zach Johnson and Tiger Woods sure know how to start the British Open.
Now, they’ve got to show they can finish.
Bouncing back from a tough loss last weekend, Johnson opened with 5-under-par 66 on a sunny Thursday at Muirfield – another brilliant start after a 65 at Lytham last year.
“I don’t know what the secret is,” Johnson said.
Can he keep it going? A year ago, the 2007 Masters Tournament champion followed up with 74 on the way to a ninth-place finish.
“This game demands resilience,” Johnson said. “That just comes with experience.”
Woods has plenty of experience winning majors – he’s got 14 of ‘em – but it’s been more than five years since he captured the last one, the longest drought of his career in the tournaments that matter most.
Woods also got off to a strong start, posting an impressive 69 in the increasingly difficult conditions of the afternoon.
Don’t get too worked up about his chances just yet, however. He shot 67 in the opening round at each of his past two Opens, only to watch someone else leave with the claret jug. Woods faded to 23rd at St. Andrews in 2010, skipped a year because of injuries, and tied for third at Lytham.
This one didn’t begin so well for the world’s top-ranked player. Woods yanked his very first shot off a lone tree far left of the fairway and was forced to take an unplayable lie, leading to bogey. But a stretch of three birdies in four holes after the turn moved Woods into contention, and he added another two-putt birdie at the par-5 17th set up by a couple of iron shots that just kept rolling and rolling on turf that played more like a tabletop.
“It was tough,” Woods said. “The golf course progressively got more dried out and more difficult as we played. I’m very pleased to shoot anything even par or better.”
Rory McIlroy, ranked No. 2 in the world, is still trying to recapture the form he showed last August, when he won his second major title with a runaway victory at the PGA Championship.
At the moment, he’s not even close.
The 24-year-old from Northern Ireland hacked his way to a 79 – the second-worst round of his Open career and the continuation of a baffling slump that began after he changed equipment.
“I wish I could stand here and tell you guys what’s wrong and how to make it right,” McIlroy said. “I don’t know what you can do. You just have to try and play your way out. Sometimes I feel like I’m walking out there and I’m unconscious.”
The only time McIlroy shot worse in the Open was an 80 at St. Andrews in 2010, but that was more a product of a brutal wind than poor shots.
This time, he could blame only himself. Heck, he didn’t even beat birthday boy Nick Faldo, who stirred up a bit of a tempest this week when he advised McIlroy to spend more time focused on golf rather than off-the-course pursuits.
Faldo, who turned 56 on Thursday, matched McIlroy’s score even though he’s barely played at all the past three years.
The greens were slick as ice, having baked in the unseasonably dry Scottish weather over the past few weeks, and several golfers – Phil Mickelson and Ian Poulter among them – complained about the tough pin placements given the speed of the putting surfaces.
“The 18th needs a windmill and a clown face,” Poulter griped.
But McIlroy had plenty of problems just getting to the green.
Time and again, he found himself whacking at the ball out of the rough or trying to escape the treacherous bunkers. His most telling sequence came at the 15th, where he drove it into the tall grass, chopped it out just short of the green, then sent a putt screaming past the flag – right into a bunker on the other side.
He let out a sigh that said everything – a once-dominant player who, as Paul Azinger said earlier in the week, looks “adrift.”
Johnson, on the other hand, quickly shook off his playoff defeat in the John Deere Classic. He didn’t arrive at Muirfield until Monday morning after making bogey on the 72nd hole and losing to 19-year-old Jordan Spieth, who became the youngest winner on the PGA Tour since 1931.
The loss did nothing to dampen Johnson’s confidence.
Quite the opposite, actually.
He got on a roll with an eagle at the par-5 fifth, and birdies at the next two holes sent him to a lead that he still had by the end of the long day.
“If anything from last week, what I’ve embraced is the fact that I’m playing great and I can put that into play, and I’m certainly somewhat confident in what I’m doing, confident in my routines, confident in my walk out there, confident in my lines,” he said.
Mark O’Meara had plenty of confidence, as well. He ripped through the front nine as though he was in his prime – not a 56-year-old who has combined to shoot 76 over par in the past decade at golf’s oldest major. The 1998 Open champion shot 31 on the front before stumbling a bit with three bogeys.
But O’Meara rolled in a curling, 35-foot eagle putt at the 17th, lipped out a birdie putt at the tough 18th, and finished with 67, tied with Rafael Cabrera-Bello and just one stroke off the lead.
Not that it’s unusual for an old-timer to play well in the Open. Four years ago, Tom Watson nearly won at age 59. For that matter, O’Meara wasn’t even the only 50-something player on Thursday’s leaderboard.
Fifty-four-year-old Tom Lehman shot 68.
Miguel Angel Jimenez, Brandt Snedeker, Dustin Johnson and qualifier Shiv Kapur joined Lehman at two shots back. Kapur, a 31-year-old from India who plays on the Asian Tour, actually led for a while after making birdies on six of the first seven holes, turning with a dazzling 30. A double-bogey at the 10th knocked him back.
Another stroke behind were major champions Woods, Mickelson, Angel Cabrera and Todd Hamilton, along with up-and-comer Spieth, whose John Deere victory got him into the Open. The teenager hardly looked out of place, making only one bogey the entire round.
Hamilton’s 69 certainly looked out of place. He now plays on a minor-league circuit in the U.S., and this was his lowest round in the Open since he improbably won the championship in 2004.
“I didn’t really know what to expect,” he said. “I hit a couple of drives early with the driver and made a few putts and that kind of settled me down, and I didn’t try to do a lot of stuff that I didn’t feel comfortable doing.”