More than half of the previous nine Open Championships at Royal Birkdale have been won by Americans. It could be ominous, then, that the first round of the event’s 146th staging was dominated by three of Uncle Sam’s boys. After matching five-under-par 65s, Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka and Matt Kuchar lead the way on the Lancashire coast, where morning rain gave way to favourable scoring conditions.
Home hope Paul Casey and South African Charl Schwartzel took route 66 to be best of the rest, with newly-crowned Scottish Open champion Rafa Cabrera Bello taking up where he left off at Dundonald Links to sit a shot further back alongside English duo Ian Poulter and Richard Bland, as well as Americans Justin Thomas and Charley Hoffman and Canadian Austin Connelly.
Spieth’s effort was his lowest score in 17 rounds in this event, though a 66 on day three at St Andrews two years ago was better in relation to par. Flawless and featuring birdies at the second, eighth, ninth, 14th and 17th, he reckoned this one was close to perfection. “I’d give it a nine across the board for everything – tee balls, ball-striking, short game and putting,” he said.
What would it have required for a 10? “I think that’s extremely rare,” added Spieth. “I could name a few rounds in my life that I would say everything was on. I still missed tee shots, a couple more than I really wanted to. And I had a couple of putts that were within 10-12 feet that missed. But I’m pretty much saying it was really, really solid all around.”
What made his performance all the more impressive was that it vindicated the confidence he’d expressed coming into this week in his pre-event press conference. “Well, our last start was a win (in the Travelers Championship in Connecticut),” replied the 23-year-old Texan when asked why he had felt such positivity.
“At the US Open (where he tied for 35th place) I was in a good enough position to really do something special there after the first couple of rounds but just didn’t get anything to go in the hole. I’ve been putting in a lot of work with the putting and trying to get it back to the confidence that I have had the last couple of years.
“It’s just been the one thing that’s been off this year. My ball-striking has been better than in any years that I’ve ever played golf.”
Spieth really is an impressive individual, and not just in the way that he plays the game. He conducts himself really well, handles press conferences impeccably and also has one of the most active minds in his game. As this impressive start was being chiselled out, he was already thinking ahead to Friday, when the majority of the field is expected to have both wind and rain to cope with.
“I thought today’s round was extremely important given the forecast coming in,” he said. “I thought you really needed to be in the red today. You can certainly make up ground in a round like tomorrow, and we’ll see it happen, but being able to kind of play with shots or play a little more conservative is nice and very helpful.”
In his first competitive outing since becoming US Open champion at Erin Hills last month, Koepka made his score with a burst of three straight birdies from the 11th, having earlier made his first gain of the event at the eighth, before bouncing back from a solitary dropped shot by holing from a bunker for an eagle-3 at the 17th. “I played pretty solid today,” said the 27-year-old after a round that contained just 21 putts. “I felt like I was in control of the golf ball pretty much all day. And it was just fun to get back playing again after taking four weeks off.”
If that weather is indeed bad for the second round, Koepka knows how to handle it. He played in wet conditions, after all at Spey Valley in Aviemore on the final day when winning the Scottish Challenge in 2013. “I don’t mind bad weather. It doesn’t faze me,” he insisted. “I don’t really care that much. You just go play golf and shoot the lowest you can.”
Kuchar raced to the turn in 29 – one outside the record, set by Englishman Denis Durnian in the second round here in 1983. Kuchar made five birdies in his early burst, describing the one at the 499-yard sixth as “incredible” on “one of the hardest holes here”. While the 39-year-old then had to settle for nine consecutive pars coming home, the effort was 14 shots better than he managed in the opening round when missing the cut at the same venue in 2008.
It is no secret, of course, that five of the last six Open winners used the Scottish Open as a warm-up and Kuchar was the only player out of the three leaders who was at Dundonald Links last week, finishing joint-fourth behind Cabrera Bello. “For me to start my British Open with a 29 on the front nine is great and I was real happy with my performance at the Scottish Open,” said the man whose best effort in 12 previous Open appearances was a tie for ninth in 2012.
“We had a couple of awfully challenging days there and I remember being on 12th hole on Saturday with 129 yards to the pin and hitting a 6-iron and thinking to myself, ‘I am glad I’m over here doing this’. It was a perfect tune-up for here.”