By Steve DiMeglio USA Today
SOUTHPORT, England — Once the sun showed up for Thursday’s first round of the British Open at Royal Birkdale, the giant yellow scoreboards that loom over this ancient land started turning red.
While the 146th edition of this championship broke nasty with cool temperatures, howling winds and unrelenting rain, by noon all the dark clouds had floated away and sunshine bathed the grounds well into the evening. Just like that, the going was good and many of the players got going.
Two-time major winner Jordan Spieth, reigning U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka and Matt Kuchar all came home at 5-under-par 65 to share the lead after the first round of the 146th edition of the oldest championship in golf.
Resting right below the top trio was Paul Casey and 2011 Masters champion Charl Schwartzel at 66. Six players were at 67, including Ryder Cup lion Ian Poulter and Justin Thomas. Among the 12 players at 68 were four-time major winner Ernie Els, two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson and Hideki Matsuyama. Defending champion Henrik Stenson was joined by other major champions Adam Scott and Jason Day in a large group at 69.
Slumping Rory McIlroy may have found a spark with four birdies in his last eight holes to shoot 71, joined there by world No. 1 Dustin Johnson. Phil Mickelson, whose last win came in the 2013 Open, didn’t make a birdie and shot 73, the same score recorded by reigning Masters champion Sergio Garcia.
“It didn't seem to be particularly nice if you arrived in the first couple of hours,” Stenson said. “And we got a fairly good ride. It's windy, it's not easy out there, but it's still nice. Nice Open conditions. This is kind of the way you want it. It's enough to keep you honest.
“So it's nice conditions as of now.”
Emphasis being now, because now, the going gets rough. The forecast for the second round is as dire as the first round’s weather was delightful. Strong, steady winds reaching 30 mph will emerge from the Irish Sea, heavy rain will fall from the sky and temperatures will dip into the 50s. And the forecast for the final two rounds, while not as dreadful, certainly isn’t pleasant.
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In other words, survival mode will become the 15th club in the bag.
“I definitely know that we got away with a bit of a break in the weather. This morning it didn't sound good when I was lying in my bed, the wind and the rain. So the guys must have had it really tough. It started clearing up when we got to the first tee,” said Els, a winner of this championship in 2002 and 2012. “This morning I didn't even want to look out of the window. It sounded horrific. If it's like that tomorrow, obviously it's going to be tough. Whatever nature gives you, you've got to obviously try to respond with a golf shot.”
Spieth and Koepka were well rested and confident when they set up shop in this charming seaside village. Spieth took a three-week break following his win in the Travelers Championship; Koepka took a month off after winning the U.S. Open. Neither, however, needed to dust off any rust.
“I couldn't have done much better today,” said Spieth, who is seeking the third leg of a career grand slam. “I thought today's round was extremely important, as they all are, but given the forecast coming in, I thought you really needed to be in the red today. … I think experience plays a big role in dealing with conditions at an Open Championship. And I feel like I've got a lot of experience for having played four. Had a chance to win. I've been on good ends of the draw, bad ends of the draw. I'm kind of prepared for the worst, having experienced it before. … Being mentally prepared is key. I think I'm going into it, at least going into it the right way, and we'll see if I hold that together.”
Koepka needed just 21 putts in shooting his seventh consecutive under-par round in a major championship. He wasn’t concerned about his form following his layoff. Instead, he said he was “chomping at the bit” to get back and welcomed being mentally recharged. He’s not too concerned about the impending foul weather, either.
“I don't mind bad weather. It doesn't faze me,” he said. “I don't really care that much. Just go play golf and shoot the lowest you can.”
Kuchar is seeking to be the eighth consecutive first-time major winner. He tied for fourth in last week’s Scottish Open and called it the perfect tune-up.
“We had a couple awfully challenging days there at the Scottish Open,” Kuchar said. “At one point on the 12th hole Saturday I had 129 yards to the pin and hit a 6-iron in. And thought to myself, I am glad I'm over here, glad I'm doing this. It was extremely difficult conditions, but this is not something I can ever remember doing in the States. And just getting a feel for playing the different shots that you are required to play over here.
“ … I’m as ready as I can be for tomorrow if the forecast holds.”