British Open 2013: The Biggest Surprises from Day 1 at Muirfield

James McMahonContributor IJuly 18, 2013

British Open 2013: The Biggest Surprises from Day 1 at Muirfield

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    British Opens are rarely, if ever, predictable. That certainly held true in Thursday’s first round of the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield. There was a fair share of surprising performances and unpredictable challenges.

    There were former champions turning back the clock for at least 18 holes, new faces succeeding in the face of low expectations and veteran golfers struggling in ways few could have seen coming.

    Perhaps most surprising on Thursday was Muirfield itself, which was the tough test most expected, but for reasons few anticipated.

    The Scottish links course played more like a U.S. Open venue than a British Open layout as high temperatures and the bright sun baked the layout into a lightning-fast challenge. In fact, some golfers, including Phil Mickelson, complained that certain holes were borderline unfair.

    Yes, Thursday at Muirfield was just another untypical day in the sport’s oldest major championship. 

Muirfield Baked into U.S. Open-Style Challenge

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    A British Open was scheduled for Thursday at Muirfield, but a U.S. Open broke out instead.

    Warm temperatures, lack of precipitation and sunny skies combined to bake out the Open Championship course during the first round, creating conditions more connected with our national championship than the British Open.

    The rock-hard fairways and lightning–fast greens certainly took their toll on the golfers playing in the afternoon.

    While Muirfield was by no means easy in the a.m., the majority of the first-round leaders, including Zach Johnson, Brandt Snedeker and Phil Mickelson, were off the course before it really sped up and grew some serious teeth.

    By contrast, those playing in the afternoon along the Scottish course were tested by fairways that rolled and rolled and greens that got faster and faster as the day progressed. 

    In fact, a number of golfersincluding Mickelson and Ian Poulter, who ironically also played in the morning —decried the setup on several holes where questionable pin placements made approaches impossible to stop and even short putts difficult to hole.

    Not surprisingly, Poulter took to Twitter following his round and suggested a windmill and a clown face was all that was missing at Muirfield on Thursday.

    Complaints about course setup are nothing new for the USGA at the U.S. Open, but the R&A doesn't typically get taken to task during its signature championship. 

    Yet on Thursday Muirfield wasn't exactly set up for the dry and hot conditions and the effects of that was an extremely difficult—borderline unfair—afternoon of golf that took a toll on many who teed off after lunch.

O'Meara, Lehman Enjoy Muirfield Senior Moments

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    A pair of former British Open champions on the senior side of 50 turned back the clock Thursday at Muirfield and find themselves near the top of the Open Championship leaderboard.

    Lifted by an eagle on the par-5 17th hole, 1998 Open champion Mark O’Meara fired a 4-under 67 and sits just a stroke back of first-round leader Zach Johnson.

    The round tied O’Meara's best career effort in the British Open and, for at least one day, makes him a significant factor in a major championship for the first time in nearly a decade.

    Considering O’Meara played the back nine in the difficult afternoon conditions at Muirfield, the round was even more impressive and provides at least a bit of hope that the 56-year-old might have some staying power this weekend.

    Not to be outdone, Tom Lehman joined his Senior Tour partner in firing an unexpected but solid round of his own at Muirfield. Lehman, the 1996 Open champion, fired a three-under 68 to put himself in the mix after the first round.

    The effort was highlighted by back-to-back birdies on the 17th and difficult 18th hole to vault the 54-year-old up the leaderboard and just a stroke behind O’Meara.

    The age-defying duo may not hold their lofty spots on the Open leaderboard moving forward, but their efforts to get there on Thursday were both surprising and impressive.

McIlroy Shoots 79

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    A really bad week at Muirfield got a lot worse for Rory McIlroy when the tournament officially got underway Thursday.

    After spending the past couple days dealing with public criticism from Nick Faldo about the state of his game, McIlroy went out and shot a putrid eight-over 79 in the first round of the 2013 British Open, effectively ending his hopes of winning the event before it even really began.

    Playing alongside Phil Mickelson, McIlory was all over the course on Thursday. He was missing more fairways than he hit and failing to save shots with his putter like good friend Tiger Woods did during his round later in the day.

    The showing was even more surprising given that McIlroy was called out by Faldo, a six-time major championship winner, for lacking focus on his struggling game. McIlroy dismissed Faldo’s comments with his words on Wednesday, but failed to back it up with his game on Thursday.

    The round was a new and painful low for the world’s second-ranked golfer who hasn't won a tournament since the 2012 PGA Championship and has struggled in the season’s two previous majors, including at Augusta National, where he fired a 79 in the third round.

    Well, at least McIlroy didn't get bested by Faldo, who is also 8-over after 18 holes.

Luke Donald Explodes to Opening-Round 80

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    An Englishman may still win a second straight major in 2013, but it will not be Luke Donald. That much is certain.

    Donald continued his opening-round struggles in recent majors with a shocking nine-over 80 on Thursday that guarantees to send him away from Muirfield the same way he arrived—as one of the best players in the game still without a major championship victory.

    Hitting the ball all over Muirfield, Donald was a shell of himself on Thursday, only a month removed from challenging for victory at the U.S. Open. It’s hard to imagine things could have been worse for Donald, but they actually could have been.

    The 35-year-old hit a shot out of bounds on the ninth hole before it hit a sponsorship tent and ricocheted back into play.

    Donald would actually make par on the hole, but unfortunately, it was the highlight of what proved to be a nightmarish day at Muirfield.

    Throughout his career, Donald has struggled in the opening round of majors, but after a solid under-par start at Merion Golf Club last month, many expected good things at Muirfield. The good form never materialized.

    Perhaps the pressure of not having won a major is preventing the talented Englishman for settling down and trusting his once-trustworthy swing.

19-Year-Old Spieth in the Mix After Round 1

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    This time last week, Jordan Spieth wasn't even invited to the British Open party at Muirfield. After a steady two-under start, he’s threatening to crash the Open Championship soiree altogether.

    Just five days ago, the 19-year-old became the youngest golfer to win a PGA Tour event since 1931 in the John Deere Classic and earned his first ever British Open start in the process. Based upon Thursday’s effort, Spieth is determined to make the most of the opportunity.

    The toast of golf since his victory in a five-hole playoff on Sunday, the former Texas Longhorn continued his fine form at Muirfield despite his lack of preparation for the unique challenges of Open Championship golf.

    Spieth grabbed a charter to Scotland immediately after his initial PGA Tour triumph and had to have a fresh set of clothes sent to him.

    Yet despite the whirlwind week, Spieth stumbled only once on Thursday—a bogey on the par-3 fourth hole—and played the challenging back nine just as the greens were speeding up in one-under.

    If the talented American can keep his energy up and his wits about him, he might just add a major championship to what has already been an incredible 2013 season.

Journeyman Shiv Kapur Shoots 68

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    Shiv Kapur survived a devilishly difficult Muirfield late on Thursday to turn in what was perhaps the most surprising performance of the day.

    That's right; I said Shiv Kapur.

    Ranked 210 in the world, the relatively unknown Kapur turned in a three-under 68 from the final group of the first round of the 2013 Open Championship. The round, which looked like it might be even better early on, was the lowest of the afternoon and bested Tiger Woods’ impressive two-under effort delivered around the same time of day.

    Kapur, a European Tour journeyman making only his second Open Championship start, came out of the gates swinging at Muirfield with three straight birdies to start his round.

    By the time the 31-year-old from India would make the turn, he was at six-under and leading the tournament outright by a single stroke over Zach Johnson.

    However, Kapur was dealt a dose of reality on the par-4 10th hole when a double bogey dropped him out of the lead.

    Kapur would later suffer his only bogey of the day on the 14th, but by and large managed to survive a difficult back nine in challenging conditions to stay surprisingly in the hunt after 18 holes at Muirfield.