The first group of 2013 Open Championship golfers took to the links at Muirfield at 6:30 a.m. local time on Thursday, marking the beginning of the 142nd major championship on European soil.
Reigning British Open champion Ernie Els, 2013 major winners Adam Scott and Justin Rose, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson headline an impressive group of golfers all vying for the Claret Jug this year, but rarely do we see the best golfers in the world all lead in the first round of a major.
Which early contender has the best chance to win the Open?
Simply put, anything can happen at a major championship. Surprises abound in the first round of majors each year, and this year at the British Open is no different.
Midway through the opening round, Zach Johnson's five-under 66 was good enough to give him the lead heading into the clubhouse. Other golfers will have a chance to unseat him as Thursday's Round 1 action continues, but it will be hard to equal the success Johnson put forth in his 10th career appearance at the Open.
Behind him, Rafael Cabrera-Bello had an impressive four-under 67, and Miguel Angel Jimenez, Dustin Johnson and Brandt Snedeker rounded out an early group of golfers who finished at three-under.
Not surprising in the first round, Angel Cabrera is back in the hunt. Shooting a two-under 69, Cabrera reminded us all that he should be included in any and all lists of golfers who play their best on the biggest stages. Jason Sobel of the Golf Channel noted as much on Twitter:
It's a major week, so expect to see... oh, wait. There it is. Angel Cabrera's name is on the leaderboard.— Jason Sobel (@JasonSobelGC) July 18, 2013
We'll have a comprehensive look at the leaderboard when Thursday's action ends, but until then, here's a look at three of the biggest surprises from Scotland so far.
Zach Johnson was wheeling and dealing on Thursday morning in Scotland.
Fresh off a tied-for-second-place finish at the John Deere Classic, Johnson has played better golf since finishing third at the Crowne Plaza in May.
Johnson finished his round on Thursday with four birdies, an eagle and a bogey, posting the second-best score of his career at a major championship.
As noted by ESPN's Justin Ray, Johnson was nearing records and breaking statistical barriers for most of the round:
The low 9-hole score at Muirfield during an Open is 29 (Ernie Els, front nine in 2002). Zach Johnson birdie-birdie at 8-9 ties it.— Justin Ray (@JRayESPNGolf) July 18, 2013
Zach Johnson: 8 one-putts through 12 holes. Johnson is T-136th on @PGATOUR in 1-putt pct this year. Was 8th in 2012.— Justin Ray (@JRayESPNGolf) July 18, 2013
The 2007 Masters winner has the experience of winning a major championship in his pocket and also had his best finish ever (T9) at the Open last year.
Coming off a disappointing finish at this year's Masters (T35) and missing the cut at the U.S. Open, Johnson had to do some soul searching before traveling across the ocean to participate in the third major of the year this season.
He did some of that with a strong finish at the John Deere Classic, and that finish clearly carried over to Muirfield on Thursday.
I don't think anyone expected Rory McIlroy to blow the field away during the opening round, but no one expected him to post one of the worst scores of the day either.
The two-time major champion posted an eight-over 79—a score that ironically tied him with three-time British Open champion and semi-retired Englishman Nick Faldo.
If you'll remember, Faldo made headlines by stating that it was time for McIlroy to focus solely on golf.
As The Telegraph's James Corrigan reported on Tuesday, Faldo blamed a lack of concentration and focus on extra-curricular activities as reasons why McIlroy has struggled on both the PGA and European Tour this year.
Bob Harig of ESPN reported on McIlroy's response to Faldo on Wednesday. The 24-year-old shrugged off the advice from the three-time winner and returned serve by stating his elder should "know how hard this game is."
It looked hard for both golfers on Thursday. The difference, though, is that Faldo is an aging past champion who is in the field to appease whatever last-minute dreams of making magic run through his mind.
McIlroy is the No. 2 golfer in the world. If he can't climb out of the hole he created on Thursday, he might not hold that ranking for long.
The North Irishman had six bogeys, two double-bogeys and managed just two birdies in his disastrous opening round. Not only is he in danger of missing the cut, but McIlroy is also in danger of slipping down the World Golf Rankings in the midst of the worst golf of his career.
A frustrating year took another turn for the worse on Thursday for McIlroy.
Mark O'Meara must have been listening to Prince on his plane ride to Scotland, because he partied like it was 1999 during the first round at the Open on Thursday.
To be exact, he's partying like it's 1998.
The 1998 British Open winner played more like a 30-year-old than a 56-year-old, birdieing five of his first nine holes before finally dropping a stroke on No. 10. Through No. 16, O'Meara was sitting on a solid score of two-under.
At one point, he even had a share of the lead. CBS Sports' Kyle Porter posted this tweet to make sure you weren't questioning your sanity when looking at the current leaderboard:
Mark O'Meara shares the lead at the 2013 British Open. Yes, 2013.— Kyle Porter (@KylePorterCBS) July 18, 2013
After two more bogeys on the back nine threatened to ruin what was an impressive round, O'Meara responded with an eagle on the par-five 17th.
He had a solid approach shot on No. 18, and then also had a birdie putt for the share of the lead. The putt would circle around the cup and out, but O'Meara tapped in his final Thursday shot for a four-under 67.
He'll enter the second round with that score, and likely couldn't be happier with what was an epic return toward the top of the Open leaderboard.
O'Meara currently plays on the Champions Tour and missed the cut at The Masters in April. He does have five top-10 finishes on the Champions Tour this year, and in the immortal words of Toby Keith, O'Meara might not be as good as he once was, but he's as good once, as he ever was.
1998 was O'Meara's best stint on the PGA Tour. He won The Masters and the British Open that year, and finished in the top five at the PGA Championship to complete the season.
With just one top-10 finish at a major (2003 Masters) and a slew of missed cuts at others, the non-golf world had largely forgotten about O'Meara. But anything can happen at a major, and O'Meara is a former champion.
I wouldn't bet on him to be in contention on Sunday, but I'd be lying if I said it wouldn't be incredible to watch the one-time winner reinsert himself into the conversation 15 years after his last major championship win.
And you'd be lying, too.
Follow B/R's Ethan Grant (@DowntownEG) on Twitter.