IT WAS a day when power prevailed over putting. If that trend continues in the 144th Open Championship, then Grand Slam-chasing Jordan Spieth fears that his fellow American, Dustin Johnson, will be a darned difficult man to catch at St Andrews.
“If DJ keeps driving it the way he is, then I’m going to have to play my best golf to have a chance,” admitted Spieth, the pre-tournament favourite, after watching his playing partner set the pace in the Claret Jug joust with a seven-under-par 65.
On a day when the Old Course played fairly easy for the early starters before the afternoon groups battled a stiffening breeze, the flawless effort earned Johnson a one-shot cushion following the opening exchanges in the battle for a £1 million top prize over compatriots Robert Streb and Zach Johnson, Scotland’s Paul Lawrie, South African Retief Goosen, Australian Jason Day and England’s Danny Willett.
It was an impressive statement of intent by the 31-year-old South Carolina man, who three-putted the 72nd hole at Chambers Bay last month to allow Spieth to add the US Open to his Masters victory earlier in the year. It was the latest in a series of hard-luck tales for Johnson in majors, but he is not the type to mope.
“Nothing bad happened at Chambers Bay, so there’s nothing to be upset about,” he insisted after a round that was illuminated by an eagle at the par-5 fifth from ten feet. “I played really well and put myself in the right positions, but you couldn’t control what the ball was doing on those greens.”
Control was Johnson’s motto, both from the tee and on the greens, on this occasion. Backing up what he’d said about a fairly new TaylorMade driver earlier in the week, he was both long and straight. The furthest distance he was left for a second shot going out was from 195 yards at the aforementioned fifth. That was despatched with a “perfect” 7-iron.
It’s hard to argue with somebody who is splitting bunkers at 380 yardsJordan Spieth
On the tougher back nine, other than the par-5 14th, his two longest approaches were from 200 yards at the 16th and 220 yards at the 17th. They were the only two holes he ended up scrambling a bit but saved par both times. “Other than that, I had good looks at birdie all day,” said the leader, who has chalked up four top-15 finishes in golf’s oldest major in the last five years.
Spieth’s first competitive round on the Old Course was a praiseworthy effort. The 21-year-old putted like a god – again – in getting to six-under-par after 11. He stumbled a bit over the closing stretch, dropping shots at 13th and 17th, but a curling 15-foot birdie putt was judged to perfection at the last for a 67.
“I’m very pleased with the start and our game plan worked out perfectly,” said the Texan of the strategy he’d plotted together with his trusty caddie, Michael Greller, in the short time they’d had to prepare for this test after only arriving in Fife on Monday after Spieth’s success the previous day in the John Deere Classic in Illinois. “He (Greller) was out here at 4am this morning walking the course and checking the pins and we had full and complete trust in our knowledge.”
While admitting they’d “fed off each other”, Spieth said he’d been in awe of Johnson on a day when his average drive was 322 yards – 26 yards further than the world No 2. “It’s hard to argue with somebody who is splitting bunkers at about 380 yards and two-putting for birdie on five or six holes when there’s only two par-5s. I don’t have that in the bag, so I’ve got to make up for it with ball-striking.”
Renowned for that, Lawrie attributed a holed bunker shot at the second for his encouraging start on a course where he won the Dunhill Links in 2001. “Instead of possibly being one-over, you’re one under and little things like that tend to jump start you a bit,” said the Aberdonian. A welcome change in fortune on the greens also helped, having put a different grip on his flat stick after suffering frustration on the Gullane greens in the Scottish Open. “I went to the (thicker) SuperStroke grip that everyone seems to be using – I thought I’d do something different because I’ve been putting nicely but not making any putts,” he added.
Day, who produced a flawless effort in the company of Tiger Woods as the two-times St Andrews winner left himself in danger of another early major exit after a 76, is keeping his fingers crossed that there is no repeat here of the vertigo attack he suffered at Chambers Bay. “It’s not great to have it in tournaments because it takes a couple of days to get rid of, but if it comes, it comes,” said the world No 9. “I can’t really control it – that’s the unfortunate thing.”
While Swede David Lingmerth was quickest out of the blocks – he raced to the turn in 29 to equal Tony Jacklin’s effort here in 1970 before struggling home in 40 – the first of the day’s 66s was posted by Streb. Playing his first Open, the 28-year-old, who won the McGladrey Classic on the PGA Tour this season, described thinning a wedge from the perfect position at the tenth as his only “little hiccup” in a round that contained seven birdies. “I played a practice round with Tom Watson on Tuesday,” he revealed afterwards. “I live in Kansas City and Tom does as well and, luckily enough, he was nice enough to play with me during what is a busy week for me. He’s obviously had a good track record over here, so he was pretty helpful.”
While Goosen is playing in this event for the first time since 2012 and only secured his return through a play-off in a qualifier at Woburn, the 46-year-old has a good track record at St Andrews. He finished joint fifth – an effort he equalled four years later at Turnberry – in 2005 then claimed a share of sixth spot in 2010. “I hit the ball terrible on the range this morning, but once I got out on the course and started seeing and feeling the shots you need to hit here, I hit it nicely,” said the two-times US Open champion, who happily has “zero back pain” these days after fearing his career might be over if surgery on it in 2012 hadn’t been successful.
Both Willett and Zach Johnson chiselled out their promising starts in the tougher afternoon conditions. Playing in only his fourth Open but expected to be a contender for next year’s Ryder Cup, Willett came home in three-under 33, signing off in style with a 30-foot birdie putt. “The more you’re in and around this atmosphere, the more you realise, ‘actually I’m pretty equipped to do pretty well out here’,” said the Yorkshireman.
Johnson, the 2007 Masters champion, also signed off with a longish birdie putt to repair a Road Hole bogey. “This is my favourite tournament year in, year out,” said the 39-year-old. “But if I was to rank the venues for it, this wouldn’t be No 1. It’s not that I don’t like it, but Muirfield, Turnberry, Birkdale, Lytham and even Carnoustie to a degree stand out to me.”
He might like St Andrews even less if the weather is as foul as it is predicted to be today.