GULLANE, Scotland — Another sunny day along the Scottish coast. Another perilous test on the links of Muirfield.
Not that it was bothering Lee Westwood.
The 40-year-old Englishman surged up the leaderboard at the British Open today, putting up a blistering 5-under 31 on the front side to climb within one shot of first-round leader Zach Johnson.
Westwood, who opened with a 1-over 72, started the second round with two straight birdies to get into the red numbers. He also birdied the eighth, and took advantage of both par-5s to push his overall score to 4 under.
The last English golfer to win the British Open was Nick Faldo in 1992.
Tiger Woods was trying to break a drought of his own. The most recent of his 14 major titles came at the 2008 U.S. Open, but he’s 0-for-20 since then. Despite taking a bogey at the fourth, where he lipped out a 2?-foot putt, he approached the turn still even on the day, 2 under for the tournament and solidly in the hunt to get his name on the claret jug for the fourth time.
The weather has been unseasonably warm and dry, the fearsome wind not much more than a gentle breeze, and it was expected to stay that way through the weekend. Even so, there weren’t many chances for going low, not on a course that is more brown than green, with pin conditions that some players complained were downright unfair.
Even though he opened with a 2-under 69, Phil Mickelson was concerned about some hole locations being too close to the edge of slopes. He pleaded with the Royal & Ancient to let go of its ego and “just set the course up the way the best players can win.”
Mark O’Meara, the 1998 Open champion, countered that he’s played in much tougher conditions, perhaps emboldened by a surprising 67 that left him just one stroke behind Johnson. But the course bit back today, sending the 56-year-old tumbling out of contention. He lost his ball at No. 6, leading to a double-bogey, and staggered to the finish with a 78.
Jordan Spieth also felt Muirfield’s bite. The 19-year-old, who last weekend became the PGA Tour’s youngest winner since 1931, made only two bogeys through his first 32 holes and was 3 under. Then, a double-bogey at the 15th, followed by a bogey at No. 16.
Just like that, the youngster was back to even par.
Then there was Darren Clarke, the surprise Open champion in 2011 but mostly an afterthought since then. The Northern Irishman made four birdies on the front side. Unfortunately for him, all that good work was wiped out by one bad hole — a quadruple-bogey 8 at the sixth.
Johnson, who had an afternoon tee time, had not been atop the leaderboard at any major since he rallied to win the Masters six years ago. He took advantage of kinder conditions Thursday morning to shoot a 66, helped along by a 45-foot eagle putt. He made only one bogey despite trouble lurking around every pot bunker.
“Anytime you shoot under par in an Open — or a major, for that matter — you have to be putting at least somewhat decent,” said Johnson, who lost to Spieth in a playoff at the John Deere Classic after making bogey on the 72nd hole. “And I putted great. I made some nice birdie putts and obviously that one for eagle. But I struck some really nice, solid par putts. That’s what you’ve got to do to stay in it.”
It was an eclectic group setting the early pace, from major champions to players making their British Open debut. What they all had in common was finding a way to get through a firm, fast and frightening setup that figures to get even harder if the R&A doesn’t put some water on the course.
“I haven’t seen anything like this,” said Brandt Snedeker, among those who opened with a 68. “This is completely new to me — foreign to see a 2-iron going 300 yards. You have got to be wary of how you’re shaping your golf ball, and what shot selections you’re using on the greens.”
Snedeker could find things even tougher today, when he was set to tee off in the afternoon. Rafael Cabrera-Bello (67), Miguel Angel Jimenez (68) and Dustin Johnson (68) also had later start times.
As for Rory McIlroy, it doesn’t seem to matter when he plays. He struggled to a 79 in the opening round, his highest score at the Open since that 80 in the vicious wind of St. Andrews in 2010. The former world No. 1 has been in a baffling slump since his runaway victory at last year’s PGA Championship, and it looked as though he’ll be spending another weekend at home.
At least he had some company.
Luke Donald, another former No. 1 player in the world, shot 80. Faldo celebrated his 56th birthday with a 79 on the links where he won two of his three claret jugs.
Ninety-eight players in the 156-man field had at least a double-bogey on their scorecards after Day 1. Former U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover might have summed it up best when he took to Twitter after opening with an 80.
“Muirfield 1, Me 0.”