Zach Johnson leads after one round of the 142nd British Open at Muirfield because he handled the hard-as-quartz course beautifully, turning in a 5-under-par 66. He was joined near the top of the leader board by Rafael Cabrera-Bello, a 29-year-old Spaniard who might figure to be there, and Mark O’Meara, a 56-year-old American who won this championship long ago and has some words for those around him complaining, both with 67s.
They were followed by a group at 68 that included two reasonable pre-tournament picks — Dustin Johnson and Brandt Snedeker — and Tom Lehman, a 53-year-old who falls directly into O’Meara’s camp as a past-his-prime former Open champion.
“I guess I just didn’t feel that old out there today,” O’Meara said.
Yet Muirfield turned the hair of a few others a bit more gray. Turns out the wind doesn’t need to howl for the British Open to be the British Open. Bake the greens, and just try to stop a putt.
“I can see how guys were complaining about it,” said Tiger Woods, who ground out a 2-under 69 and is very much alive. “Some of these putts today, I mean, I putted a ball off the green today — and it really wasn’t that bad a putt. Anything that goes four feet by, it’s gone. It was tough.”
This course, as much as any other, has a history of producing champions who represent their eras — Hagan and Player and Nicklaus and Trevino, onto Watson and Faldo and Els. All of them were tremendous ball-strikers, and all were able to separate themselves on this track that is, generally, less tricky and more straightforward than most Open venues.
But while the hot — and in Scotland, anything in the 70s qualifies as “hot” — conditions over the past two weeks may have been nice for residents, it has served to dry out the course. Thus, Muirfield’s greens have a bit of a crust to them. Many are brown in spots, so hard they felt like kitchen counters — more so as the day wore on.
“It’s literally like an ice rink around some of the holes,” Graeme McDowell said.
The R&A, which stages the Open, dismissed the complaints summarily. “We’re still very satisfied with the course,” CEO Peter Dawson said. “It’s playable, but indeed very testing.”
All jolly good, then. But listen to Phil Mickelson, whose most recent memory of Muirfield was his three-putt at the last, one in which his first putt from perhaps 15 feet looked at the hole as it rolled by, and finally stopped six feet past. He missed the come-backer, marring an otherwise solid 69, and then offered this afterward: He was fortunate that he played early, because the setup was borderline unfair.
“The pins were very edgy, on the slopes and whatnot, that the guys that played early had a huge, huge break,” Mickelson said. “Because even without any wind, it’s beyond difficult. . . . You’ve got to let go of your ego sometimes and just set the course up the way the best players can win.”
England’s Ian Poulter, who played wonderfully most of the day, bogeyed four of his final five holes to finish with 72, and couldn’t keep his hands away from Twitter afterward.
“Unfortunately the guys this afternoon will struggle with a few pin positions,” he tweeted. “8th hole is a joke, 18th needs a windmill & clown face.”
So turn to the veterans for perspective. This is O’Meara’s 28th Open. In so many words, he said, he knows unfair. Here came the lecture from someone who must have walked to school uphill through snowstorms – both ways.
“Trust me, I’ve stood on holes where it’s 200 yards or 212 and hit driver, and I could barely hold onto the club and it’s freezing raining and sleeting and cold and I can’t put my umbrella up,” O’Meara said. “To me, that’s way more miserable than what we had out there. I thought it was tough, it was challenging. But unfair? I say no.
“If they think it’s that way, then they need to look at the old man and say, how did he do it that way? Seriously. These guys are good. They should be able to play in these conditions.”
Two who could: O’Meara and Johnson. The former won his British Open title in 1998 at Royal Birkdale, when he was 41, even then moving toward winter. But age, in this case, was an advantage, not a detriment, because he knows how to run the ball to the right places, and power becomes less important. He hit 15 of 18 greens, made eagle at 17, and would have tied Johnson for the lead had his birdie putt at 18 not lipped all the way around the cup.
“I didn’t feel like I was 56 years old out there,” O’Meara said. “I felt like I was 32.”
Johnson, who won the 2007 Masters, is 37 and more accustomed to being in such a position. He nearly won the John Deere Classic on Sunday before losing a five-hole playoff to Jordan Spieth. He flew here on a charter with other PGA Tour players, erasing the sting of that defeat on the flight.
“This game demands resilience,” Johnson said. “It demands resilience on the golf course, each round, each hole, and day to day. But it also demands it week to week.”
And it demands it whether the gale is blowing or the sun is out. Muirfield, for sure, will demand it as the weekend approaches, weather be damned.