SANDWICH, ENGLAND — Thomas Bjorn is 40, hardened by both life and golf, at no time more than the present, at nowhere more than Royal St. George’s. Tom Lewis is 20, not a battle scar on his baby face, the magnitude of the British Open something to drink in rather than spit out.
Thursday morning, Bjorn began the British Open at Royal St. George’s — the very place where, eight years ago, he left his best hopes of winning a major at the bottom of a bunker — with a splendid and unexpected 5-under-par 65 in a wind that fit the conditions expected at this event.
Thursday afternoon, playing with the man for whom he was named — five-time Open champion Tom Watson — Lewis matched that 65 when the wind laid down, posting the lowest score by an amateur in the 140 British Opens to date.
“To play with Tom, no matter what I shot, was going to be excellent,” Lewis said. “I was more not wanting to embarrass myself in front of him.”
He didn’t, becoming the first amateur to even share the lead in this event in 43 years.
“He could be my grandson,” said Watson, 61.
Thus, the Open produced disparate co-leaders — one shot better than Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez and Americans Lucas Glover and Webb Simpson — on a day that featured vastly disparate conditions from morning till night. Start with Bjorn, because his story resonates here, of all places. In 2003, the Dane was one of the best players in the world, so it was less than surprising that he held a three-shot lead over a star-studded leader board — Tiger Woods, Davis Love III, Vijay Singh — as he headed to the final four holes at Royal St. George’s. He buckled.
“That was eight years ago,” he said Thursday, yet the collapse followed him here. Though he won on the European tour earlier this year, his game has scarcely been the same since. He was runner-up to Phil Mickelson at the 2005 PGA Championship, but had fallen into near oblivion, failing to even tee it up in 13 of the past 14 majors.
“I’ve been very uncomfortable on the golf course for a long time,” Bjorn said. “I’m not really knowing where the ball starts and I’m not really striking the ball the way I wanted to.”
Mix in two other factors this week: He didn’t know he would be in the field until Monday night, and in May, his father died. The former came about not only because Singh withdrew Monday, but because four other players had bowed out earlier. The latter still staggers Bjorn. When asked about his late father Thursday, he requested “two seconds,” put his head in his hand and paused before managing to say, “He would have been very proud of what I did today.”
Not least because of what happened at 16. In 2003, Bjorn stood at the par 3 with a two-shot advantage, but found a greenside bunker. His first attempt at extraction ran up on the green, then back in the sand. The second did the same. The double bogey crushed him. An unknown American, Ben Curtis, stealthily came away with the claret jug.
“I probably didn’t dwell on it as much as some people thought,” Bjorn said. Yet he missed the cut in his next four majors. Thursday, then, came a small bit of retribution: His birdie at 16 was one of three straight, and it helped him to the lead.
“Today was a massive step in the right direction for me,” Bjorn said.
Lewis has far less experience, positive or negative, from which to draw. A Walker Cup player who hails from Nick Faldo’s home club, he won the 2009 British Boys Amateur Championship on these very links. His father Bryan is a former professional golfer, and Bryan’s two sons – Tom and Jack – draw their names both from their family background as well as from two of America’s greatest golfing stars.
“My husband admired them,” said Lynda Lewis, Tom’s mother.
Bryan Lewis, though, couldn’t stomach showing up and watching his son play alongside his hero Thursday. Tom Lewis barely seemed bothered. He introduced himself to Watson on Tuesday, just to get the nerves out. When their round began Thursday, the calls of “Tom” from the gallery clearly were for Watson, who is beloved here. But by the time Lewis stepped to the 18th tee – having birdied 14, 15, 16 and 17 – circumstances had changed.
“I think they were cheering for me as well,” Lewis said.
Watson, who shot 72, is something of a patriarchal figure here for the week. He gave his blessing to Lewis, with whom he will play again Friday.
“He’s quite a refined player at age 20,” Watson said.
Both Lewis and Bjorn will have to continue with their refinements if either is to stay in contention going forward. For now, though, the Open sets up as a sublime contrast, no telling what will win out – the calloused veteran, the carefree youth, the course itself, or a character not yet introduced.