Christmas Day in July dawned clear, bright, and windless, and with a heavy hand from advanced golf technology, golf’s greatest players ripped the wrapping paper of the venerable Old Course at St. Andrews. Birdies were the coin of the realm and red numbers dominated the trademark giant yellow scoreboard overlooking the 18th green.
Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy opened the tournament with fireworks, firing a blistering 63 in the benign conditions. His card was perfectly clean: seven birdies and a stunning eagle at the par-4 9th. He drove the green and made the 15 foot putt. In fact, he played the crook, the stretch of 9 – 12 in 5-under for the four holes. He closed with a 30 on the back nine, including a birdie at the home hole.
“Obviously there’s been a lot of rain over the past couple of days and going out this morning with no wind, you’re never going to get St. Andrews playing any easier,” McIlroy said in his post-round media center interview. McIlroy’s competitive record at St. Andrews has been exemplary. He’s played nine rounds there since 2007, six as an amateur, and has never shot higher than 70.
“This course, I just love the place,” he said. “If I had one course to play, this would probably be the course, because it’s just an enjoyable golf course.”
It was the 24th 63 in major championship history and the eighth in the 150 year history of the Open Championship. Interestingly, only one other player accomplished the feat at St. Andrews, Paul Broadhurst in 1990. Tiger Woods was the last player to card a 63 at a major. His 63 at Southern Hills in the 2007 PGA Championship was a cunning surgical dissection of the course and a clinic in precision planning and execution.
As we go to press, (noon stateside today), South Africa’s Louis Oostuizen is in second place by himself with a 65. John Daly, Andrew Coltart, and Steven Tiley are tied for third at 6-under 66. Daly’s 66 was the most remarkable. He turned heads for all the wrong reasons a two days earlier, showing up for champions’ events at the 150th Open Championship at the Home of Golf as the only person without a tie, but wearing a technicolor dreamcoat called “Shagadelic” made by his sponsor, Loudmouth Golf Apparel. Many questioned the timing of the outfit, but it also didn’t help that published photos used the snapshot taken when Daly looked peaked and haggard.
That being said, nobody looked good in that picture except Paddy Harrington, but we digress.
Daly fired a 31 on the front nine and ran off four consecutive birdies at 8 – 11. his lone bogey came at the 17th, the iconic 495-yard par-4 Road Hole, which is essentially a par 4-1/2, (it’s playing to a bloated 4.63 stroke average) but has made headlines with a new tee box off the confines of the course and on an adjacent track.
“Mild thing?” Daly asked when queried by the press as to what we should call him now that he is trying to shed his “Wild Thing” image – despite the silliest outfits this side of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey. still, his sublime short game complimented his long drives well in the windless conditions and rain-softened Old Course.
“It’s good to be sittin’ here. I think this is the first time I’ve seen the media center at the British Open since 1995,” he said gratefully, more clear of eye and attentive than earlier in the week, and sporting a pretty pink and light blue outfit with matching bubble gum and lavender paisley pants. “The green are not real fast but they’re rollin’ real good and a firm putter goona have an opportunity to really get it goin’.”
Then he provided excellent strategic analysis and a candid look at how technology and length are hurting the defense of the Old Course.
“My whole method about playin’ here is that I only worry about one bunker and not five or six. For me, it just puts driver in my hands.”
Still, not everyone is enamored with technology’s effect on the Old Course. Melvyn Morrow, a direct descendant of Old Tom Morris, is an outspoken opponent of uncontrolled technology and its effect on golf courses and golf design.
“Technology is killing our old courses….As a golfer I would be pleased to be 9 under but come on how much of that is down to the modern equipment vs. Fitness/course condition?” he asks poignantly.
“There is a sadness in these low scores. So our only hope or option is that the wind rises and comes to the aid of TOC….To say its the best score in the 150 years of the game is just untrue. Its only the best because of the new technology. The score is only applicable today, as in 5 years it will be even lower if still no control. Just who the hell do they think they are kidding, with all the low score this morning. The message is clear, you have to control technology.”
Still, wind is the great equalizer, and a links course that yields Tiger Woods’s 67 today, can counterpunch right back the next day with a 77 in blustery conditions. “I saw the wind so bad earlier this week,” wrote one Irish journalist, 50 mph at one point, that I thought over par might win the tournament. Indeed, early week conditions were freezing, rainy, gusty, and were thought to be predicted through Saturday. Today’;s sunshine and calm were unexpected, and the players took advantage. As the final round nears a close, 77 players are under par, and and 105 of the 156 starting contestants are level par or better.
Scandal scarred Tiger Woods was 6-under after 14 holes, but bogeyed 17 to finish with a 67. He was tied for 6th as we went to press.
“It felt awkward because there was absolutely no wind. You never play a links golf course in no wind,” said Woods. “These greens are the slowest I’ve seen in a long time…if ever. Putts uphill into the grain are slow….I’m in good shape. I took advantage of a golf course when I had to.”
Lee Westwood overcame a slow start to shoot a 67 as well, his first round under 70 in 11 tries at St. Andrews. Lucas Glover and Sean O’Hair are two of the eight other players who join Woods at 5-under, four back of McIlroy. Trevor Immelman, Ryo Ishikawa, and Camilo Villegas were all at 4-under along with 11 other players, including three-time major champion Vijay Singh, Ricky barnes and Peter Hanson. Former Open Champions Paul Lawrie and Ernie Els were part of another large logjam at 3-under 69.
Back-to-back Open Champion from 2007 and 2008 Padraig Harrington opened with a pedestrian 73.
OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP AT ST. ANDREWS FLASHBACK: Lee Trevino was leading the 1970 Open Championship at St. Andrews when he hit an iron approach to what he thought was his side of the gigantic double greens…then it hit him:
“Oh no! I done hit it to the wrong flag! And I’m dumb enough to have done it too!”
Leaving himself a putt of over 100 feet on a turbulent green, he bogeyed, opening the door for Jack Nicklaus, who went on to defeat Doug Sanders in a playoff.