It was a beautiful day at Liverpool Hoylake for the opening round of The 2014 British Open Championship. The squally showers that had blasted the course on Wednesday afternoon had passed to the east, and the sun shone bright and warm. While the spectators basked in the sunshine, the players kept an uneasy eye on the flags fluttering around the top of the grandstands. There was enough breeze to keep them on their toes.
The vagaries of links golf were very much apparent. At the end of the day there were 32 players at 3-under or better. Of these, all but a handful had teed off in the first half of the draw during the morning. In the media tent there is a huge scoreboard across one wall that keeps track of every player, hole by hole, arranged in groups according to their start time, left to right. It is divided into six blocks. The two blocks on the left hand side were sprinkled with red; as you moved to the right, the red numbers steadily disappeared and were replaced by black and blue. As the morning wore on and the breeze strengthened, scoring grew visibly and measurably tougher.
But links golf is about more than the weather. It is about layout and luck, and a thousand other factors that come into play. The 551-yard par-5 18th hole was a perfect illustration. It is an odd hole, with the eccentricity that is typical of links courses. It doglegs from left to right, and as it enters the cavernous arena of the stands that surround the green, the right hand stand juts out so far that it actually blocks the line to the green for any player whose tee shot strays too far in that direction.
An early victim was Tiger Woods. He went so far right that he found himself playing straight over the heads of a posse of cameramen in the lee of the stand who, being perfectly entitled to be there, showed little inclination to accommodate the great man by moving and losing the chance of a rare angle on the Woods swing. Tiger was clearly irritated, and although he tried to fade his second around the corner of the stand, he found the bunkers on the left of the green and could do no better than par a hole that the top players will see as a clear birdie opportunity.
But they will have to be careful, and lucky. The fine line between triumph and tragedy on a golf course became all too apparent later in the day. Defending champion Phil Mickelson had struggled through the toughest conditions. Back-to-back bogeys on 13 and 14 had taken him to one-over, and he really needed a birdie on the last to get back to level par and keep within sight of the leaders.
He pushed his drive left and into the light rough on the edge of the fairway. Then from a relatively friendly position and lie, he pulled his second shot horribly right and into the railings at the base of the stand. The look on his face told its own story, and his fears proved justified. His ball had come to rest just an inch or two beyond the leg of the railings. He was out of bounds, and had to replay his second shot under penalty.
Still in the rough after four, he conjured up a shot that at least left him on the green, although 25 or 30 feet from the hole. Like the great champion that he is, he sank the putt, and escaped with a bogey from a predicament that could have put paid to his hopes of making the cut.
Minutes later, Adam Scott played the same hole. He had shown his class to force himself to four-under – at the time the only player in his half of the draw to be anywhere close to the leader.
Scott pulled his tee-shot horribly. It was a far worse shot than Mickelson's second. But Scott is a right-hander, and his pull went left. It careered so far left that it cleared the railings on that side of the hole altogether, and scattered spectators who were walking along the path that follows the first hole.
Mickelson, barely an inch beyond the leg of the railings on the right, had been punished with an out-of-bounds penalty. Scott, yards to the wrong side of the railings on the left, was rewarded under local rules with a penalty-free drop back on the territory of the 18th hole. He too put his approach in the rough, but the lie was friendly. He hit a chip close enough to give himself hopes of a birdie, and ended with a tap-in for par.
Scott stayed at four-under in a 7-way tie for 3rd. Mickelson trails back in 84th place on plus two.
Leading the field is Rory McIlroy, on his own at six-under. He repeated his fireworks of the previous week at the Scottish Open, when he led the field after shooting seven-under in the first round. He and his army of supporters will hope that he avoids any repetition of his second round, however, when he gave back all those strokes. Today he was rock solid and consistent, with three birdies on both the outward and inward nine, and no bogeys. He will be carefully watched tomorrow afternoon.
Behind Rory is the young Italian prodigy Matteo Manassero, also on his own in second place on five-under. Behind them on four-under are seven, including both the Molinari brothers, Brooks Koepka and Jim Furyk of America (meaning that Italy has more players in the top ten than the USA), Sergio Garcia, and the aforementioned Adam Scott.
The last player in the group more than merits a mention. Ireland's Shane Lowry teed off very late in the day, and to a certain extent benefitted from the fact that the wind died away as the evening drew on and the last players were coming home, a common phenomenon on seaside links courses.
But Lowry made the most of his good fortune. Arriving at the turn at plus one, he began to find his rhythm, putting his irons close enough to give himself a chance, and sinking his putts. He birdied three in a row on 10,11 and 12, then had another on 14, before wrapping things up with a birdie at the last. No one has bettered his five-under over nine holes.
As ever, Tiger Woods lurks threateningly. He is on three-under, a score that seemed unlikely when he ran up bogeys on the two opening holes. But he fought back from one-over at the turn, with a run of five birdies and one bogey from 11 through sixteen, to haul himself back into contention.
It will be interesting to see how the weather pans out on Friday. If it repeats the pattern of today then Scott and Lowry, as the only early starters among the leaders, could cash in. But as they themselves will be only too well aware, consistent weather over two days on a links golf course is a rare ocurrence.