Leaderboard dances to the tune of top American trio
The Stars and Stripes were flying proudly atop the leaderboard at The 146th Open as Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka and Matt Kuchar moved to the front of the field with five-under-par rounds of 65 at Royal Birkdale on Thursday.
Such impressive scoring, on a day made tricky by blustery winds, gave the American Ryder Cup trio a joint first round lead of one stroke over England’s Paul Casey and South Africa’s Charl Schwartzel. Two strokes further adrift are six others, including a resurgent Ian Poulter.
All three of the leading players had reasons to be cheerful.
Spieth, the former world No.1 and already the possessor of two majors, was so pleased with his play that he awarded himself nine out of ten. “Everything was strong,” he said. “I give it a nine across the board for everything - tee balls, ball-striking, short game and putting. So things are in check.”
Koepka, winner of the US Open last month, showed no rust at all after a four-week vacation in which he took in the delights of Las Vegas. The highlight of the round was an eagle from out of a greenside bunker on the par five 17th, after which he rebutted the suggestion that such a long break could have hindered his chances. “It's a major championship,” he stated. “If you can't get up for that, you might as well go home,”
Kuchar went to the turn in 29, with five birdies in eight holes from the 2nd, and came home with nine successive pars. While it could be argued that he lost a little momentum, he was delighted with his performance. “A 29 on the front nine is a great way to start,” he said. Indeed it is.
One player fearful of losing touch with the leaders was Rory McIlroy, who was staring into the abyss after dropping five shots in the first six holes. At that point his caddie, J P Fitzgerald, read the riot act to him: “You’re Rory McIlroy,” he fumed. “What the hell are you doing?”
It had the desired effect. That McIlroy finished the day on one over par – and still within reach of the leaders – spoke volumes for his determination to turn things around. The four-time major champion did not drop a shot after the sixth, and picked up birdies at the 11th, 15th, 17th and 18th.
Henrik Stenson, seeking back-to-back victories in the championship, had an opening 69 – as did former world No.1 Jason Day - and was quietly satisfied. “I will definitely take that start,” said the Swede. “I think I could have been one or two shots better and finished two to three under. That would have been a pretty good reflection of how I played.”
What some others would have given for such a score, local favourite Tommy Fleetwood among them. Born and bred in Southport, the world No.14 carries the hopes of the town on his shoulders, but finds himself languishing towards the bottom half of the field after a disappointing 76. He will need a big improvement in the second round if he is to make the halfway cut.
The same might be said of Sergio Garcia, the Masters champion, who is on three over par.