Open begins with decent weather, big mystery
AP Photo/Peter Morrison
LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England - This looked familiar: Tiger Woods atop the leaderboard at a major championship.
Strolling the course with that customary swagger, Woods resumed the quest for his 15th major title with a blistering start at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, making four birdies in the first seven holes to take the early lead in the British Open on Thursday.
The conditions couldn't have been any better for going low.
An early morning sprinkle gave way to dry weather, the sun making an occasional appearance through the low-hanging clouds. There was hardly any breeze blowing in off the nearby Irish Sea, the flags atop the 18th grandstand barely rippling.
Woods, Masters winner Bubba Watson and Australia's Adam Scott were among those who took advantage.
Showing excellent control off the tee — a must at Royal Lytham — Woods got rolling with a birdie at the opening par-3, rapped in another at the fourth, then grabbed the outright lead with a 20-footer at No. 6. He grimaced after each of his first two shots at the par-5 seventh, but was still in good shape, just short of a greenside pot bunker. He deftly chipped right up next to the flag and tapped in for another birdie.
Watson, whose gambling style seemed ill-suited for a British Open, was downright steady — heck, even a little boring — on the front side. He kept the ball in play, rapped in three birdies, and headed back toward the clubhouse with a 3-under 31.
Scott, seeking his first major title, bounced back from a bogey at the third with birdies on three of the next four holes. Two more birdies early on the back nine carried the Aussie to 4 under, tied with Woods atop the leaderboard.
Also in the mix: a bunch of other major winners, including 2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell (3 under), 1999 British Open winner Paul Lawrie (2 under) and 2007 Masters champ Zach Johnson (2 under).
The wind was expected to pick up in the afternoon and make things tougher for that side of the draw, which included world No. 1 Luke Donald, Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy. But the dry weather was projected to last through the weekend.
The last guy to qualify for the tournament, India's Jeev Milkha Singh, made a 25-foot birdie putt at the opening hole but faded a bit down the stretch to finish with an even-par 70. He earned his spot by winning the Scottish Open last weekend.
Unheralded American James Driscoll, playing this major for only the second time, made an early splash by rolling in a 50-foot birdie putt across the first green. But Lytham bit back — big time.
Before Driscoll was done with the front nine, Driscoll had two double-bogeys on his card, along with a triple-bogey 8 on the seventh. He headed to the back side with an ugly 9-over 43, essentially out of contention before most of the 156-player field was even on the course. Even with a decent finish, he still signed for a 76.
Royal Lytham is the shortest course on the Open rotation over the last decade, and it's on the smallest piece of property, tucked a mile or so away from the ocean and surrounded by homes and a railway.
Accuracy off the tee was at a premium on a layout that featured 206 bunkers, more than any other club in the Open rotation. Also, the persistent rain left the rough even thicker than usual, which should keep the spotters busy looking for balls.
The powerful hitters can hit over the bunkers, as long as they avoid the next set of traps. But it's not so simple to think that players can hit well short of the bunkers for a longer shot into the green, because they might not be able to reach the green.
"The easy part is around the greens," 2003 Open champion Ben Curtis said. "The hard part is off the tee."
The list of Open champions at Royal Lytham is impressive — David Duval and Tom Lehman, both formerly No. 1 in the world, won the last two times. The rest of the winners showcased in the brick clubhouse are in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Then again, trying to figure out the next winner isn't that simple.
Next to the 206 bunkers, the number getting the most attention at this major is 15 — the number of players who have won the last 15 majors. An even greater sign of parity is that the last nine major champions had never won a major before.
The streak could go to 16 if the betting favorite — Woods — were to win his fourth claret jug and get back on track in his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' record 18 majors. Or the 16th different major champion could be No. 1 or No. 3 in the world ranking. Those guys would be Donald and Lee Westwood, both from England playing on home soil, both trying to capture their first major title.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963