Jordan Spieth produced one of his best major championship efforts to take a share of the lead alongside fellow Americans Brooks Koepka and Matt Kuchar after the first round of the British Open.
The trio all shot five-under-par rounds of 65 at Royal Birkdale on Thursday and hold a collective one-stroke lead over Paul Casey and South African former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel.
It is extremely tight at the top of the leaderboard, with those players who missed some unpleasant weather coming in off the Irish Sea early in the morning succeeding in shooting low scores. But some of Spieth’s big-name rivals were left trailing, with Rory McIlroy and world number one Dustin Johnson both one over par for their rounds.
Spieth, the world number three, avoided the grim early-morning conditions on the Southport links as he went out with reigning champion Henrik Stenson and promptly fired a flawless round featuring five birdies and not a single dropped shot.
“I couldn’t have done much better today,” admitted the Texan, even if he agonisingly failed to convert a putt for birdie at 18. “Everything was strong. I thought I’d give it a nine across the board for everything – tee balls, ball-striking, short game and putting. So things are in check. It’s just about keeping it consistent.”
Winner of both the Masters and US Open in 2015, Spieth had failed to break par in his last five opening rounds at a major before coming to the north-west English coast this week. Koepka, fresh from a month off after winning his first major at the recent US Open, was one-under at the turn before a rollercoaster ride on the way home.
That saw the 27-year-old birdie three holes in a row from the 11th, bogey 16 and then eagle the par-five 17th in sensational fashion as he holed out from a bunker.
A victory for either man this week would end the recent run of seven consecutive majors going to first-time major winners. But Kuchar could extend that sequence.
The giant 39-year-old had five birdies in his first nine holes as he went out in just 29. He didn’t drop a shot all day. Afterwards he was reminded that five of the last six Open champions were aged 39 or older.
“Regardless of your age, if you’re in this field you have a dream to win the title. I know I’ve been around a while, but I also feel like I’m in about the prime of my golfing career. I feel like I certainly have as good a chance as anybody,” he said.
Plenty of other potential new champions are putting pressure on the leaders, with Casey carrying the flag for the hosts as England looks it for its first Open champion since 1992.
Casey shot a 66 along with Schwartzel, while Spain’s Rafa Cabrera-Bello, winner at the Scottish Open last weekend, is three-under. Justin Thomas and Ian Poulter, runner-up at Birkdale in 2008, are also among those at three-under, with Japan’s world number two Hideki Matsuyama and two-time former Open champion Ernie Els in a group at two-under.
Meanwhile, McIlroy, the 2014 Open winner at Hoylake, remains bullish about his prospects after recovering well from a horrendous start to his day. The Northern Irishman was five-over after bogeying five of the first six holes. But he hit back with four birdies on the way home, including at 17 and 18.
“I didn’t get angry out there at all. I didn’t let my head drop too much. So I kept a good, positive attitude. And it turned around for me, thankfully,” he said. “It was nice to see the putt on 18 go in and close out today with something really positive.”
Playing alongside him, Johnson never got going but is in a stronger position than the likes of Sergio Garcia and Phil Mickelson, who are both three-over. Stenson, looking to become the first man since Padraig Harrington nine years ago to retain the Claret Jug, was better off at one under par.
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