Royal Birkdale got a royal flogging today. All sorts of splendid golfing fowl abounded: birds by the dozen, 16 eagles on the 17th hole alone by late afternoon, even a double eagle-2 everyone on this continent calls an albatross. But when the shooting finally stopped, a walrus was waddling off with the 112th British Open.
Craig Stadler only parred the easiest hole on the course, chopped about the rough nearly a half-dozen times and still broke the course record by two shots with a seven-under 64. That dinner-hour finish paled the earlier four-under brilliance of Tom Watson and took a bit of luster off the two by Bill Rogers on the 17th, which was playing like a 526-yard pitch-and-putt today.
If you didn't shoot three under this first round, and a gang of five at 68 that includes Nick Faldo and Hal Sutton did, nobody much beyond kin cared, unless maybe you were Lee Trevino in the group at 69. The wind stayed away and, with relatively soft greens, the course was all but defenseless.
"This is the kind of course our guys like," Stadler said, "American greens."
Open season on the British Open was best illustrated by the threesome of Stadler, West German Bernhard Langer and Briton Paul Way. They had a best ball of 59, with Stadler acting the part of a NASCAR and the others being carried by his draft.
Had Langer not bogeyed the 10th hole, he would have had second place to himself instead of being tied at 67 with Watson and Rogers, and if Stadler had not gotten spooked by some yelling during his backswing on the 17th fairway he might have gotten close to 60 himself.
Stadler said he never recovers quickly from having to pull off a shot in midswing. When he composed himself, he pulled a two-iron shot and the ball ended in the rough well behind the green. A bad chip and an even worse 12-foot putt fetched a frustrating par.
And may have been responsible for that rough-rough-rough-bunker bogey at 18.
Stadler was not wailing, this being the best score he has posted in a major tournament. He also had more than his share of good fortune, holing putts of 40 feet, 30 feet and 40 feet during a stretch of five straight back-nine birds.
In truth, he sort of expected that would happen.
"Yesterday had a lot to do with what happened today," he said. "I shot something like 30 on the back nine (during a practice round with Jack Nicklaus, Watson and Lanny Wadkins). I made three birds and two eagles, with a 60-foot putt and a 40-footer.
"Lanny and I were eight under the back nine, and only won with that 40-footer of mine on 18. So I really wanted to get back there today. All of a sudden I was making putts. It was pretty funny."
Unless you were Nicklaus, who had the worst possible late-afternoon tee time and still shot even par 71. Or unless you were Bobby Clampett, who had a quadruple bogey-8 on the first hole after three penalty strokes. Two of them were for the ball hitting his bag during an unplayable-lie drop.
Playing to survive the front nine, Stadler shot a three-under 32 that included birdie putts inside 12 feet and a par saver from five feet on No. 3 after being in the rough twice. Memorable as the overall result was, Stadler had trouble recalling the clubs he used to achieve it.
"I remember where I hit 'em," he laughed, "I just don't remember what I hit."
A four-iron and three-wood got him on two of the three back-nine par-5s in two. Relatively simple two-putts followed. He kept getting bolder with his driver until it failed him on the 18th tee.
Still, his lie looked worst than it was. Until he swung the club. He said the seven-iron recovery shot was aimed 20 yards to the right of the green, his assumption being that the grass would cause that much of a hook. It caused a 60-yard hook, and Stadler was not far from a fence he never realized bounded the hole.
He got a bit cute with a wedge, then hit a beaut from the trap and saved bogey from three feet. Judging from how he reacted to a performance better than the 66s three players shot here during the '76 Open, either walruses don't get too excited or Stadler has shot 64 before.
"I had longer putts go in once at Doral," Stadler said, "I hit a terrible putt at 15 that still went in. But the long one at 16 I knew was in 10 feet from the hole. Sometimes you get in that position, standing over 40-footers and saying: 'Hey , it's gonna go in.' Basically, that's how it was today.
Stadler said he still doesn't "entertain any thoughts of winning. Lots of things can still happen."
With what Watson calls American golf, meaning benign green and calm weather, Birkdale figures to be battered even more. Perhaps Seve Ballesteros will forge something fabulous to go with that even-par effort. Maybe Trevino's back will hold for a round even better than today's. Forty-seven players shot par or better.
Rogers had the shot of his life at 17, which seemed the day's most pivotal until Stadler began his binge, because it was timed just so Rogers' one-iron rolled into the cup at 17 nearly the instant Watson was suffering a bogey six two holes behind.
So Watson reached the green with a three-shot lead; he left the green trailing Rogers by one.
"Never even seen a double eagle, let alone made one," the '81 British Open champ said. "But I was playing a practice round with Ian Young yesterday, and he talked about having seen two the last month. One of 'em was on 17.
"Gordon Brand had hit his second shot over the green, and that's where I thought mine was headed until I saw people near the green falling out of the stands."
Watson's fate might have been worse, save for some alert fans and his own wits. At 15, he blocked a two-iron wide right, the ball landing in some buckthorn bushes. Because a caddie's arrival at the scene also counts against the five minutes alloted for looking for errant shots, Watson made sure his was delayed until a hunting party had been formed.
"I feel comfortable," he said after a five-birdie round. "I made some good putts. I hope that's a good omen."