MARK O’Meara, the 1998 winner and just one shot off the lead after rolling back the years in the first round of the 142nd Open Championship, has responded to criticism of the course set-up at Muirfield, in baking conditions, by hitting out at fellow competitors who “whine a lot”.
Another former champion, David Duval, also urged players to “stop complaining” after newly-crowned Scottish Open champion Phil Mickelson and Europe’s Ryder Cup talisman Ian Poulter both voiced their displeasure about the test set by the R&A on the opening day.
Despite opening with a two-under-par 69 to sit just three shots off the lead held by former Masters champion Zach Johnson, who got off to a flying start for the second year running, Mickelson aimed a broadside at the event’s organisers.
“We’ve got to let go of our ego sometimes and just set the course up the way the best players can win,” said the four-times major champion. “The greens are dying [due to the hot and dry conditions] and the holes are on edges of slopes that the ball just simply won’t stay.”
Poulter, who also couldn’t be accused of sour grapes as he opened with a 71 to sit comfortably in the top half of the field, described the hole location at the eighth as a “joke” and claimed the “18th needs a windmill and a clown face”. He was inferring things had become like crazy golf on greens that, although watered overnight, had become lighting-fast as the temperature edged closer to 30 degrees centigrade than the 25 that had been forecast.
After Stewart Cink, the 2009 winner at Turnberry, had also tweeted about the greens “really baking out” and claiming they’d become “the fastest I’ve seen in The Open”, R&A chief executive Peter Dawson moved quickly to respond to the criticism.
“Far from unplayable,” he insisted, “but we do hear player comment and we’re not so insular as to ignore it. We’ll take that into account tonight when we decide how greenskeeping staff overnight are going to set up the course tomorrow. I do understand that some players get very frustrated. Ian Poulter, for example, bogeyed three out of the last four holes. We’re still very satisfied with the course. It’s playable, but indeed very testing.”
O’Meara, now 56, said he “didn’t see it being unfair” and admitted he’d been unhappy to hear some of the criticism. “I’m not saying that I haven’t complained or gotten upset on the golf course, but I am not a big fan of guys that whine a lot,” said the two-times major winner after signing for a four-under-par 67 to sit in joint second alongside Spaniard Rafael Cabrera-Bello.
“I don’t see any reason for it, especially as today’s generation are so talented,” added O’Meara. “They’re playing for so much money and to show a little sign of appreciation, whatever sport you’re in, to people like all the volunteers, requires some responsibility. I think players should be more aware of that aspect to hopefully conduct themselves in the right manner on the golf course. And, when they don’t, it does bother me, to be honest with you.”
Johnson, the 2007 Masters champion, also couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. “They [the hole locations] were certainly playable,” said the 37-year-old, who was a shot off the lead after an opening 65 at Lytham 12 months ago and was still in contention after a third-round 66 before recording a first top-10 finish in nine Open appearances. “It’s not like they were on a crevice or a tier. It’s what you expect in a major.”
Showing no ill effects from losing out in a play-off for the John Deere Classic in Illinois on Sunday, Johnson “putted great” – he holed from 45 feet for an eagle-3 at the fifth and birdied the next two – in what he described as a “solid day”. He also used his driver six times – a lot more than most people had been predicting in the fiery conditions. “It’s very demanding from the tee box, which is good for me,” he said. “I know a lot of guys are saying there’s not a lot of drivers out here. But it’s one of my best clubs, so I’m going to take advantage of that when I can.”
On a good day for ex-champions – Tom Lehman carded a 68 and Tiger Woods and Todd Hamilton signed for 69s, the former bouncing back from a shocking first tee shot that was lucky not to sail out of bounds with five birdies – O’Meara’s
effort was undoubtedly the pick of the bunch.
While admitting it was way too early to get carried away, he’ll be using Tom Watson’s heroic effort at Turnberry four years ago, as well as Greg Norman making his presence felt on the leaderboard at Royal Birkdale the year before that, as inspiration for the next three days. “I realise I’m 56 but I also realise that I’ve won the Open Championship,” he said. “I also know that links golf is a little different than playing in the Masters, the US Open and the USPGA. It’s not just about power. It’s about creativity, thinking about where you need to land the ball. It’s motivating to watch what Tom Watson did at Turnberry. It’s motivating to see what Greg Norman did at Birkdale. Do I think I can (win)? When I play like I did today, yeah I think I can. I didn’t feel like I was 56 out there today; I felt like I was 32.
“I understand I’m not a spring chicken or I maybe don’t putt as good or chip as good, but there are times the way I play and strike the ball that I feel I’m actually a better player than I was 15 years ago.
“The quality of the shots I hit out there today, I would say that’s as good as I played when I was in my prime.”
It’s normally giant tankers that come steaming up the Firth of Forth. Yesterday morning, though, it was a Spanish Armada with, initially, Miguel Angel Jimenez at the helm before his younger compatriot, Cabrera-Bello finished the day holding the wheel. Three clear of the field at one point after coasting to the turn in five-under 31 – India’s Shiv Kapur went one better later in the day before running out of steam on the inward journey – Jimenez signed for a 68, one more than Cabrera-Bello.
Both share a passion for skiing. Jimenez broke his leg last winter in a fall in the Sierra Nevada in his native Andalucia and is only making his eighth appearance of the season here. He insisted the accident hadn’t left him fearing about his career. “But I did feel pissed off,” added the 49-year-old, the oldest winner in European Tour history. “If you break your leg at 30 years old, you could have a sabbatical year. But, at 49, you don’t even want to spend a sabbatical for a day.”
Cabrera-Bello, who just missed out on last year’s Ryder Cup team and has his sights on Gleneagles in 14 months’ time, looks up to Jimenez. “He’s been a great reference point for me and is a very big part of the Spanish Armada,” said the 29-year-old.
On a day when there was a sufficient easterly breeze to make things tasty – at the first, for example, the cumulative total for the 156-strong field was 87-over-par – defending champion Ernie Els ran up a triple-bogey 6 at the 16th in his 74 to sit three shots behind Masters champion and last year’s runner-up Adam Scott.
Justin Rose, the US Open champion, managed just one birdie – at the 17th – as he opened with a 75, while Rory McIlroy, the world No 2, slumped to an error-strewn 79, the same as two-time Muirfield winner Sir Nick Faldo.