GULLANE, Scotland — Perfect days on the Scottish coast are precious few, and they should be treasured. Thursday felt as such, with the sun up and the breeze down. Put away, for once, the windbreaker and the rain slicker, and slather on sunscreen for that rare British Open in which brisk is replaced with burnt.
Given the absolutely beautiful weather and the stunning view off the eastern coast to the Firth of Forth and beyond to the North Sea, what would there be to complain about Thursday? Let the golfers take over, because they are a peculiar lot, so used to so much being predictable and pristine.
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 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.
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.”