Zach Johnson was all smiles after his first round.
It was the best of times. It was the fastest of times.
That’s what Charles Dickens might have written had he been covering today’s Open Championship at Muirfield on the first day.
Facing unusually warm and clear conditions that dried out the course, players were forced to be more exacting than ever as balls ran off fairways and greens in an ever-punishing style, prompting thrown clubs and long grimaces.
A number of familiar names made it to the top of the leaderboard, including last year’s first day leader, a 56-year-old former winner, a long hitter and a lefty (guess who?).
But it was an unknown from India who stole the headlines. Meanwhile, Rory McIlory, Luke Donald and Ernie Els failed to impress.
As the Open unfolds, let’s take a look at the winners and losers in the first day of this glorious saga.
There always seems to be some older, wiser vet at the top of the board on the first day. Tom Watson and Fred Couples have been there before, and now it's Mark O’Meara’s turn.
O’Meara scorched the front nine with a five-under 31 and then eagled the tough 17th hole. He later lipped out a 30-footer on 18 that would have put him in a tie for the lead.
O’Meara, who won the Open Championship in 1998, showed the upstarts how to play a fast links course on Day 1. He was joined by another veteran of his generation, 55-year-old Tom Lehman, who was just one shot behind him at three under.
Given his age, it will be interesting to see if O'Meara can keep it up.
At eight over, McIlroy is already 13 shots behind with no respite in sight.
The rebound that might have been expected by the 24-year-old two-time major winner never came to fruition. Instead, Rory missed most of the fairways, and it looks as though he is still grappling with his swing and his Nike clubs.
To Rory, his poor performance was a result of a lack of concentration.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m walking around out there, and I’m unconscious,” McIlroy said to The Washington Post. “I just need to try to think more. I’m trying to focus and trying to concentrate. But yeah, I can’t really fathom it at the minute, and it’s hard to stand up here and tell you guys what’s really wrong."
Unless Rory can pull himself together, he will be hard-pressed to make a run at the leaders as the tournament goes on.
The course was just a breeze for Dustin Johnson and his big driver.
Currently at three under, Johnson has a history of strong showings at the Open Championship. He has finished in the top 15 in each of the last three years, including a tie for second in 2012.
Despite an up-and-down season that has included a couple of withdrawals, two missed cuts and a win, Johnson looked comfortable at Muirfield. He absolutely dominated on the par fives with two birdies and an eagle.
If the hardpan conditions continue, you can look for Johnson to keep the ball flying and his scores low.
Luke Donald was lost in the reeds—an all-too-familiar refrain for the 36-year-old in search of his first major.
Donald entered Muirfield with high hopes and lots of expectations but just couldn’t seem to get out of his own way. Missing short putts and knocking balls into the tall rough is no way to win a tournament as tough as the Open Championship.
Luke finished at a very unenviable position of tied for 143rd place at nine over.
The 19-year-old Spieth kept his excellent year of play going with a stellar two-under on the first day.
Spieth, who just won the John Deere Classic in a playoff with Zach Johnson, performed calmly and confidently throughout the day. He managed the course by keeping balls below the cup allowing him to card three birdies and only one bogey, a fairly remarkable feat on this tough course.
He will be one to watch going into the weekend.
It may have been a bit of a long shot to expect Justin Rose to win consecutive majors. Still, after winning the U.S. Open, he was one of the favorites going into Muirfield.
Rose, however, shot a disappointing four-over 75, placing him well back of the leaders.
Most notable was his inability to capitalize on the early tee time and relatively low winds. His scorecard included only one birdie.
He’ll have to pick things up if he intends to play over the weekend.
This is familiar territory for the sharpshooting Johnson, who held a similar position last year when he shot an opening round of 65 at Royal Lytham.
Johnson is coming off a playoff at the John Deere and is known for hitting fairways and greens with regularity. At Muirfield, he was particularly good at gauging distances, which ultimately set him apart from the crowd.
His five-under 66 included four birdies and an eagle. If he can keep up this type of play, the former Masters winner will be hard to beat.
The hope for Els to win back-to-back Open Championships took a bad turn as the South African finished eight off the pace at plus-three.
Last year, he got off to a wonderful start with a 67, but he has a lot of work to do to regroup and put himself into contention this time around.
While his round was fairly consistent, Ernie will need some pretty spectacular play going forward.
Perhaps the hottest player going into the Open Championship after his win at the Scottish Open last week and his second-place finish at Merion, Phil scored beautifully and finished at two under for the day.
It took him over 20 years, but he finally realized that big drives off the tee on a links course are unnecessary. Just like at Merion, Mickelson left his driver out of the bag and went with another wedge.
The master of the short, lofted shot seems perfectly positioned to extend his play through the weekend and make a run at his first Open Championship win.
The normally unflappable South African let the course get to him.
On the 15th hole, after mashing his ball out of a rough that was above his waist, Schwartzel heaved his club across the fairway, breaking it in half. Luckily, he didn’t need it when he holed out on 18 out of a sandtrap.
He ended his long day at four over.
If you haven’t heard of Shiv Kapur, you certainly are not alone. Yet, with six birdies in his first seven holes, he is striving to make a name for himself.
Kapur is an Indian professional who spends most of his time on the Asian and European tours. In 201 European Tour events, he has only finished in the money 104 times.
So, when he took the lead from Zach Johnson, it was easily the biggest surprise of the first day.
Kapur finished in a tie for third at three under.
Do we think too much of Rickie?
His round of seven-over 78 was surely not what was expected from the up-and-comer who tied for fifth at the 2011 Open Championship.
Fowler has had a highly inconsistent year to date, with only seven finishes in the top 25 and no wins.
At Muirfield, his 41 on the front nine was typical of his play this year, including two double-bogeys. He had to scramble to shoot 37 on the back nine.
Tiger got off to a rough start by yanking two balls into the rough on the first hole. At that point, it looked like it was going to be a long day for the world’s No. 1 ranked golfer.
While showing no signs of trouble from his injured elbow, Woods then went on to shoot a solid round of 69 which left him just three off the pace in a tie for ninth.
In typical Tiger fashion, there was no lack of great saves from the sand and the rough as he meandered his way across the speedy fairways and greens. He played especially well on the back nine—which included four birdies and only one bogey—sinking every putt that he needed to.
Playing without a driver in his bag, Woods looked as self-assured as he had earlier in the season in the midst of his four wins. If he continues in this vein, Tiger may not only get his fifth win, but his much sought-after 15 major title.
With the weather conditions somewhat benign, it is up to the course to make things tough on the players, and it has. The dried out conditions have hardened both the fairways and the greens, and it's difficult to know which is running faster.
Balls are running 100 yards after hitting the ground. Louis Oosthuizen hit an iron off the tee that traveled over 300 yards into the tall reeds.
Gauging distances are paramount on the course, so players clubbed down in an effort to play the bump and run. Adam Scott understood this when he knocked in a birdie from 170 yards out using a 9 iron.
It is just as tough on the green, with players sighing from relief at two-putts. The hard, fast greens make it virtually impossible to get the ball close to the hole.
In gut-wrenching fashion, Muirfield offers the ultimate test of course management in which the margin of error has been reduced by the difficult conditions. It will be interesting to see if the course administrators apply some water to the greens to slow them down tomorrow.
Apparently, typical brisk and rainy conditions at this year’s Open were not in Mother Nature's master plan.
While that's certainly good news for all of the golfers, isn't that one of the key reasons to watch the Open as a fan? That's kind of the fun of it all—to watch players fight the weather as much as the rough and the bunkers.
Instead, Muirfield has been more desert-like than North Atlantic as players shed their raingear for short sleeves. The winds are an easy, breezy 12 to 15 mph while the sun shines amid scattered clouds.
It is more like a postcard from the tourism board than a brutal test of man against nature.
Even though one of those cold Scottish fronts can move in at any time, the weather is predicted to remain pretty much the same throughout the weekend.