He flew home to America with the Claret Jug 12 months ago. That was as one of Jordan Spieth’s travelling companions, though. Now Kevin Kisner wants to pay his pal back. “I spent a lot of time with Jordan and the Claret Jug. It would be cool to return the favour and let him look at it a little bit,” he said.
The 34-year-old is off to a promising start. On a strange sort of day – it seemed certain that someone was going to go low in fairly benign conditions but some sneaky pin positions stopped that – Kisner set the pace in the 147th Open Championship with a five-under-par 66. He leads by a shot from one of his compatriots, Tony Finau, as well as South African duo Erik Van Rooyen and Zander Lombard.
A third Springbok, newly-crowned Scottish Open champion Brandon Stone, is a stroke further back, as are American pair Ryan Moore and Brendan Steele. A sizeable group on 69 includes two former winners, Rory McIlroy and Zach Johnson, 2016 Masters champion Danny Willett, world No 2 Justin Thomas, Spaniard Jon Rahm and Matthew Southgate, who hails from Southend-on-Sea but is a Carnoustie member.
This is the eighth Claret Jug joust to be held at the Angus venue, but there were things going on that had never been seen before here. On one of the fastest-running courses in this event’s long history, Belgian Thomas Pieters drove the green at the 385-yard opening hole in the morning before the double US Open champion, Brooks Koepka, did likewise later in the day.
Rahm also got his tee shot on to the putting surface at the 399-yard fourth and Dustin Johnson was just short at the seventh, measuring 400 yards. Sergio Garcia, meanwhile, found the burn short of the green with his drive at the 471-yard tenth and did a “Jean Van de Velde” by going into the water and playing it, though with more success than the Frenchman at the closing hole here back in 1999.
Kisner, who comes from Aiken in South Carolina, only 20 miles from Augusta, ignited his round with an eagle at the sixth, the infamous Hogan’s Alley. It was pretty defenceless on this occasion but will have bitten back, for sure, by the time we’re finished here on Sunday night.
“It jump-started the round,” said Kirk, who hit less than 50 per cent of the fairways but made amends for that by taking only 22 putts. “I hit a great drive and a 3-iron and holed a long putt, which was kind of the theme of the day. I continued to make birdies and finished it off with really nice pars on the last three.” He got up and down on each occasion, including a sand save at the last. In his fourth appearance in this event, the effort beat his previous best opening round by four shots. “I think getting accustomed to links golf is something you have to do because of where we come from. It’s taken me a few years to understand that,” said the two-time PGA Tour winner. “You’ve got to just be really good with your long putting and your long shots around the green.”
Playing Palmetto, a course in Aiken, where they tend to get as crispy in the summer as Carnoustie is at the moment, helped him set the pace. “Palmetto is a great golf course for British Opens,” said Kisner, who is sitting 19th on the points list but is hoping to make a strong challenge over the coming weeks in the battle to make the US Ryder Cup team in Paris in September. “It’s firm, fast and undulating around the green. That’s why I feel so comfortable here around the greens because I see the same type of shots at home often.”
Home for Kisner this week is a “frat house” he shares with Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas, Jimmy Walker, Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson. Among them, they have won eight majors, with Kisner and Fowler the only ones still trying to make that big breakthrough. “It’s not intimidating at all,” insisted Kisner. “They’re all great people. That’s the best part about it. Everybody is chilled and it’s a lot of fun to be around those guys. There’s a lot of great players. It’s really cool just to hear what they have to say. Everybody’s sitting around at night scratching their head on what club to hit off of every tee.”
That hanging out has also included the odd kickabout. “We’re out there playing soccer at night,” added Kisner. Is Spieth as good with a ball at his feet as he normally is wielding a putter? “Oh, yeah, absolutely,” he said. “Until he sends it over the goal four houses over, and we’ve got to go knock on neighbours’ doors for the ball!”
It’s been a successful spell for South Africans on Scottish soil recently. Jovan Rebula, Ernie Els’s nephew, won the Amateur Championship at Royal Aberdeen to secure his place in this field. Stone, pictured, then signed off with a stunning 60 to claim the Scottish Open title at Gullane on Sunday and, earlier this week, the Junior Open over the Eden Course at St Andrews fell to Martin Vorster, a 16-year-old who is a member of the Louis Oosthuizen Academy.
Van Rooyen, a 28-year-old from Johannesburg, started birdie-birdie on his Open debut, having secured his place in the field after finishing joint fourth behind Russell Knox in the Irish Open at Ballyliffin. “I was obviously a little nervous, but that’s natural and I’m really proud how I handled it,” he said. “I’m usually a little more conservative anyway, so I don’t hit a ton of drivers. My gameplan worked out great.”
Lombard, who lost to Bradley Neil in the final of the Amateur Championship at Royal Portrush in 2014, signed for five birdies, including four in the first eight holes. The secret of his encouraging start was simple.
“I hit the ball in the good spots,” he said. “You’ve got to control your ball out there, and I think I did pretty well. You don’t win it on Thursday, but my ball-striking gave me confidence today, and I hope I can take that form into the next two days.”
Finau, a 28-year-old from Utah, is starting to find his feet in majors, having tied for tenth in The Masters in April then claiming fifth spot in last month’s US Open. “There’s a lot of hype involved in all these tournaments,” he said after an eight-birdie opening salvo. “If you get too stressed out in these type of tournaments, then you’re going to kill yourself. The US Open was a big confidence-booster for me. It gives me a lot of confidence and just a lot of peace to know I can play at a high level in these type of events.”
It was an odd day for Jordan Spieth, the defending champion. He produced one of the shots of the round when running a putt perilously close to the edge of a bunker to save par at the short eighth. He was three-under and bogey-free through 14 holes before the wheels came off, dropping four shots over the closing stretch.
“I just hit the wrong club,” he said of a wayward second shot leading to a double-bogey 6 at the 15th. I just had a brain fart, and I missed it into the location of the only pot bunker where I could actually get in trouble. It was a really poor decision and that cost me.”
Matt Kuchar, last year’s runner-up, opened with a 70, as did Rickie Fowler, who said a birdie at the last had “capped off a good day of fighting and grinding”. Henrik Stenson, the 2016 champion, also produced a “fighting performance” as he joined fellow Swede Alex Noren and on-form Italian Francesco Molinari with one-under-par efforts as well.
Among those a further shot back are three-time winner Tiger Woods, who gave a huge gallery something to cheer about straight away with an opening birdie before becoming a bit ragged on the back nine, and world No 3 Justin Rose, who remonstrated with a photographer after an untimely camera click on the sixth green. “I let the photographer know that I was not happy about what happened, and that was it,” said the Olympic champion after partially repairing the damage of a double-bogey 7 at the 14th with a closing birdie.
Koepka was out in 41, taking three to get out of a bunker at the eighth, before coming home in 31, but among those fighting to make the cut are world No 1 Johnson and Padraig Harrington, the 2007 winner here, after matching 76s. Garcia, too, after a 75.