Jordan Spieth rolled in putts like it was 2017. Louis Oosthuizen put those runner-up finishes in the last two majors out of mind and soared to the top of the leaderboard. They gave The Open a familiar feel on day one.
Normalcy returned in other ways, too, to the wind-swept links at Royal St. George’s, in Kent on the south-east English coast.
The roars and cheers of the biggest golf crowd since the pandemic rumbled around this quirky course off Sandwich Bay, just like pre-COVID times.
For Spieth, that was as welcome as being an Open contender once again.
“It feels inside the ropes, from the first tee forward, the most normal of any tournament we have played thus far, relative to that same tournament in previous years,” Spieth said.
His 5-under 65 certainly turned back time to four years ago when he lifted the claret jug at Royal Birkdale — the last English venue to host the British Open — when he was hitting the ball better than he ever has.
Spieth was a shot off the lead held by Oosthuizen, who saved par from a fairway bunker on number 18 for a 6-under 64. That tied the lowest opening round at Royal St. George’s, previously set by Christy O’Connor Jr. in 1981.
That didn’t look as though it would be the case after the South African opened with seven straight pars. He followed with six birdies in his next nine holes.
“I’ve learnt over the years playing major championships that patience is the key thing,” said Oosthuizen, who hasn’t won one of them since the British Open at St. Andrews in 2010.
There have been six runner-up finishes in the majors since then, including in the last two.
Oosthuizen and Spieth were among the morning starters who enjoyed the best of the conditions, notably soft bounces on the most undulating fairways and greens on the Open rotation.
Yet many of the world’s best couldn’t take advantage.
Patience already might be wearing thin for US Open champion Jon Rahm, who slapped his thigh in frustration after making a double-bogey at number nine, where he took two shots to get out of a pot bunker in the fairway.
He shot 71, like Bryson DeChambeau, who spent much of his first round up to his knees in deep grass — and cursing his driver, saying it “sucks” — after being unable to use his power to overwhelm Royal St. George’s.
Shane Lowry, the Open winner in 2019, also shot 71 in front of a crowd that has a daily capacity of 32,000 this week. Not since Royal Portrush, where Lowry won, has any golf tournament seen so many spectators through the gates.
With last year’s event cancelled because of the pandemic, Lowry could finally be announced at an Open as the reigning champion golfer.
Not so for the majority of the afternoon starters, who encountered more prolonged gusts off the English Channel and slightly drier conditions.
Rory McIlroy birdied the last to salvage a 70 in his bid for his first major title in seven years. Justin Thomas shot 72. Phil Mickelson shot 80, his highest start ever in the British Open, that left him tied for last place.
Benjamin Hebert and Webb Simpson, with rounds of 66 that tied them for fourth place with three others, had the best scores from the afternoon. Former PGA champion Collin Morikawa, in his first links test, and English favorite Tommy Fleetwood were at 67.
Fleetwood would like nothing more than to become the first Englishman with his name on that silver jug since Nick Faldo in 1992.
Brian Harman was tied for second with Spieth after making five birdies in his first eight holes and finishing with a 65. Top-ranked Dustin Johnson hit 14 greens in regulation and said he was pleased with his round of 68 that had him in a tie for 19th.
Spieth had not won since Birkdale until he ended his slump at the Texas Open in April. He looked the happiest of anyone on Thursday, saying he liked where his game was at after matching his lowest score at an Open — he also had a 65 on the first day at Birkdale.
Spieth ran off four straight birdies from the fifth hole, to jump straight into form.
“Here I feel for the first time since then I’m at least coming in with a bit of form, a bit of confidence, and really my start lines off the tee,” Spieth said.
For the Australians, it was a mixed bag.
Cameron Smith led the way with a 1-under 69, to trail Oosthuizen by five shots after round one. He had a solid round, with a bogey at the par-four 15th the only blemish on his card.
Lucas Herbert nearly didn’t make it to the course for his tee-time, as the influx of crowds made traffic a nightmare around the course. He needed a police escort to get there on time, and said he felt “half-asleep until the back nine” on the way to a level par 70.
Brad Kennedy also cut it fine getting to the course — he was happy with his 1-over 71.
Matt Jones had a 2-over round, with Jason Scrivener and Adam Scott both shooting 73s.
Scott had a tough start, bogeying the fourth and fifth before getting a shot back on the par-three sixth.
More bogeys followed, however, at the ninth and 13th, before the Queenslander steadied the ship to end with five straight pars.
Min Woo Lee and Aaron Pike had 4-over rounds, while Jason Day bogeyed three of the first five holes on the way to a 75, the same score as Marc Leishman.
First-timer at the Open, Victorian Deyen Lawson, shot a 10-over 80.