While you were sleeping, the first wave of golfers at the British Open played the first round at Muirfield. Here are some of the highlights from the middle-of-the-night session in Scotland.
The Brothers Johnson
Zach and Dustin Johnson have almost nothing in common, except a surname. But both are on the first page of the leaderboard after the morning wave at Muirfield. Zach currently holds a one-shot lead over Rafael Cabrera-Bello, a margin that was two shots for significant stretches this morning. He's coming off a disappointing playoff loss at the John Deere Classic, where he made bogey on the 18th hole and then lost in a playoff to 19-year-old Jordan Spieth. But the Native Iowan's game traveled overseas, and he's back in form at Muirfield, a setup that's dried out and suits his shorter but straight hitting game.
Dustin, on the other hand, is the prototypical bomber and one of the longest hitters in the world. The firm and fast conditions at Muirfield were supposed to even the playing field, but Johnson did much of his work up around the green, particularly at the par-5 17th where he rolled in an eagle. DJ held the lead on the front nine, but was leaking oil coming into the clubhouse with no birdies and three bogeys on the back until he hit the eagle. It doesn't seem like the Euro links would fit Johnson's game that well, but he's built a track record at this championship:
Dustin Johnson is 2 under. Amazingly, only player in top 15 at #TheOpen the last 3 years. In fact, only player in last 2 years to do so.— Bob Harig (@BobHarig) July 18, 2013
Phil starts fast, hangs on
The freshly minted Scottish Open champion professed his new love for links-style layouts this week, and felt confident and comfortable at Muirfield. But it's extremely rare to win back-to-back, especially with a major on the second leg. But Phil, who said he had found the "secret" to putting, opened his championship with birdies on two of his first three holes, largely due to his putter. Mickelson saved a crucial par at No. 1 with a moderate-length putt, avoiding a dropped shot on a hole that led to multiple quadruple bogeys and crooked numbers early this morning. He then rolled in birdies on Nos. 2 and 3 and was off to what looked like a super low front nine.
But Phil stalled out a bit, sending tee shots into the fescue and struggling to save par on the front nine. He dropped a shot at No. 8 and turned in 35, four shots off the pace. Mickelson caught fire coming in however, and got back to the first page of the leaderboard with steady birdies on Nos. 14 and 15 while his playing partner, Rory McIlroy, crumbled. Mickelson had a shot at a closing birdie, but instead pumped it past and three-putted for a closing bogey. But at 2-under, he's right there and set up for a run into the weekend at his second-straight major.
The Mechanic goes low
Miguel Angel Jimenez is one of the most popular players in the history of European golf. The ponytailed Spaniard is known for his eccentric warm-up routine and persistent cigar smoking, but he has also been one of the best players in the world for more than a decade. At 49 years old, he's past the prime of his career but still has the ball-striking ability to contend with all the top players on either tour.
The Mechanic opened his week on fire, carding red numbers at four of the first five holes as the broadcast came on the air at 4 a.m. ET. It was his iron and wedge work that made all the difference, as he stuck his approach shot within a foot on No. 2 and nearly sank another wedge shot for birdie at No. 4. He raced out to an early lead at 5-under and after an outward 31, it appeared he would challenge the low majors round of 63, which amazingly still holds up after repeated threats. Jimenez, however, cooled off considerably on the back nine, failing to make a birdie and dropping two shots to finish 3-under. Much like Darren Clarke's win two years ago, a Jimenez victory would be popular in the locker room and lead to quite a party with the Claret Jug.
Pearls of wisdom from Miguel Angel Jimenez: "I always say the same thing: 1 under par is good. More under par is more good."— Barry Svrluga (@barrysvrluga) July 18, 2013
Jimenez T-3 @ Muirfield. Telling note in bio, requirements for Ryder Cup were "Rioja wine, an expresso machine and cigars."— Rex Hoggard (@RexHoggardGC) July 18, 2013
Thomas Bjorn's awful and costly start
The Open Championship can get a bit chaotic, with 156 players criss-crossing through 18 inward and outward links holes. There's often some interesting predicaments and final resting spots for many shots, and we had an early incident on Thursday when Thomas Bjorn put his ball through the lens of an $80,000 ESPN HD camera. (video via Kyle Porter of CBS):
Adding insult to injury, Bjorn then went onto make double at the opening hole.
A Todd Hamilton sighting
The 2004 Open Championship winner at Troon is the definition of a flash-in-the-pan one-hit wonder. Hamilton and former U.S. Open champion Michael Campbell are probably the modern-day poster boys for players who come out of nowhere to win a major and are never heard from again. But Hamilton broke par in The Open for the first time since 2006, firing a 2-under round of 69 and popping up on the first page of the leaderboard for the first time in almost a decade. As a former champion, Hamilton has an annual invite until he's 60, but he's missed six of eight cuts since his '04 win and has never been a factor. As you can imagine, it hasn't been easy:
Todd Hamilton (69), on the 9 years since his win at Royal Troon: "Terrible. I try not to reflect." #TheOpen— Ryan Lavner (@RyanLavnerGC) July 18, 2013
It's unlikely Hamilton backs up Thursday's round with three more to stay on the leaderboard, but for one day, the former Champion Golfer of the Year is back in the discussion.
Old timers fail to make much noise
There was great hype and anticipation surrounding the Hall-of-Fame trio of Fred Couples, Tom Watson and Nick Faldo. Watson and Faldo have a combined eight Open Championship titles, including three at Muirfield. Faldo came out of retirement and the broadcast booth for a rare appearance at a course where he has significant history, but the knighted Sir Nick blew up for a 38-41 and is 8-over. Barring some weather fortune on Friday, he won't be playing on the weekend. Watson and Couples also have an uphill battle to make the cut after 4-over rounds of 75. Mark O'Meara, however, is carrying the flag for the seniors and is just one shot off the lead after playing his first seven holes in 4-under.
Rory's a mess
In his last appearance at the Irish Open, Rory McIlroy missed the cut and openly confessed to being "lost." After a back-and-forth in the press this week with Nick Faldo regarding his attention to the game and mental preparation, Rory looked discouraged after less than an hour out on the course on Thursday. He mishit approach shots all over the yard and really struggled with his putter, blasting it past the cup on several occasions to turn pars into bogeys and bogeys into doubles. That led to a flurry of both sympathetic and humorous tweets on the world's No.2 player:
Feeling for rory right now...doesn't look he is expecting good things to happen #bodylanguage— John Huggan (@johnhuggan) July 18, 2013
Rory McIlroy with that "I can't wait for this round to be over so I can go play with my new dog" look on his face.— Shane Bacon (@shanebacon) July 18, 2013
Rory bristled earlier this week at some unsolicited advice from Nick Faldo, and now they're tied at three over par. Misery meets company.— Dan Jenkins (@danjenkinsgd) July 18, 2013
Rory's pulling putts again. I blame Caroline Wozniacki. Bill Simmons would blame the potato famine.— Jay Busbee (@jaybusbee) July 18, 2013
So yeah, not a great day, week, month, season for the Northern Irishman. McIlroy started the season as the world's No. 1 player, but he's failed to win and hasn't come close to contention at any of the majors. He's currently 6-over and it appears his week at Muirfield is done, too. There were multiple lowpoints to choose from up on and around the green, but his chances may have been lost for the week at No. 12 when his chip shot rolled right back at him for his first of two doubles in a three-hole stretch:
His second double, however, was much more entertaining. He's 8-over and will be going home early.
Those are just some of the highlights from the first half of the first day at Muirfield. Tiger Woods, Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia and more are up next.