Experience proved the most valuable commodity at The Open as two former champions, Louis Oosthuizen and Jordan Spieth, conspired with all their imagination and guile to lay down imposing early markers at Royal St George’s. The creative qualities that links golf demands by its very nature ensured the pair produced wondrous displays of measured precision and putting to tame fickle bounces, unforgiving fescue and gusting coastal winds.
Oosthuizen, the 2010 winner at St Andrews, has already been a runner-up at the majors twice this year, and so a flawless round of 64 should hardly qualify as a surprise. The South African bided his time with a monotonous streak of seven pars before bursting into life at the turn, from whereon every obstacle was treated with a near-effortless sense of assurance and putts rolled at the hole with increasing certainty. “Probably in my mind it was the perfect round I could have played,” he said afterwards. “I didn’t make many mistakes. When I had good opportunities for birdie, I made the putts. So yeah, just a very good solid round. I was just very patient.”
Oosthuizen heads into the second round with a one-shot lead over Spieth, whose brilliant 65 had not been inked into the script with such conviction. But the 2017 champion has emerged from his chastening slump and exorcised the maddening trains of analysis that left his game in turmoil. Four birdies in succession on the front nine cleared his path towards the top of the leaderboard and his putting, which had often betrayed him in the past, did not so much as flicker as he moved into a share of second place alongside fellow American Brian Harman. “Golf is a game played between the ears, right? When it’s not going great, you can certainly lose quite a bit of confidence in it. That was the first time I’ve had to really try and build confidence back up, and it takes time,” Spieth said. “By no means do I feel like I’m where I want to be mechanically yet, but this year has been a really, really good progression for me, and all I’m trying to do is just get a little bit better each day.”
But while the sun blazed overhead, Royal St George’s offered little in serenity or sympathy. The clearest evidence of that came from the contrast with Spieth’s playing partner, Bryson DeChambeau, whose bomb and gouge strategy succeeded only in imploding any inching progress. For a player who often debates the finite degrees of a shot to its most pained decimal point, the permanent unknowns of links golf remain a maddening mystery. He hit just four fairways in his round and was quickly equating his one-over-par 71 to an eternal abyss. “If I can hit it down the middle of the fairway, that’s great, but with the driver right now, the driver sucks,” he said. “I’m living on a razor’s edge.”
He was far from the only one to tread a precarious tightwire, though. Rory McIlroy stumbled with typical volatility and threatened to unravel spectacularly with three consecutive bogeys on the front nine, but the Northern Irishman rallied valiantly and birdied the last to finish on even par. There were no such comebacks for pre-tournament favourites Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas, though, who both finished in the grey. But no player felt the wrath quite so dramatically as Phil Mickelson. The PGA champion was met by an almighty cheer on the first tee but, from thereon, played to the tune of a relentless sigh and a round of 80 – the worst out of all 156 players in the field – moved with all the impetus of a punctured tyre and its merciful end could not come soon enough.
There is plenty of air in the English sails, though, with 2019 runner-up Tommy Fleetwood birdieing the last to finish at three-under-par, where he’s joined by Andy Sullivan and Danny Willett, who were among the earliest starters. Justin Rose is also well-poised on that mark, too, having avoided a single blemish despite boasting little in the way of form. “I’m a good player, I know I can compete at this level but I haven’t seen it much of late so it is hard to be super-confident,” he said. “To be honest (I came in with) high intention, low expectation but this is what I’ve been working towards.”
The 40-year-old undoubtedly has the required wealth of experience to draw on that proved the foundation of Oosthuizen and Spieth’s formidable openings. And, on a course that guarantees so many sudden shifts in direction, from the blustering wind to its undulating fairways, nothing will prove a remedy to the poison quite like wisdom.