With a dodgy back and an Open record that even a chiropractor cannot do much about, Justin Rose was not really expected to dominate Jordan Spieth on the sunny links. But he hit four birdies in a an opening round of three under while Spieth, a fully paid-up member of golf’s Big Four, managed only level par after fluffing the final hole.
Perhaps the American, who has pulled out of the Olympic Games amid widespread concerns about the Zika virus, was agitated about the prospect of going face to face with Scotland’s notorious midges.
Rose, who has missed the cut on five occasions in this event, and whose best effort was when he tied for fourth as an amateur at Birkdale in 1998 (his joint sixth at St Andrews last year was his best result since then), was at his uprightly elegant best and dropped just one shot, at the 7th.
At Troon players are advised to do some meaningful scoring on the front nine, before the wind gets in their teeth and bogeys enter their mind on the trek home. Rose, though, went out in 35 and returned in 33. “Typical me,” he shrugged, amiably.
Rose birdied the par-five 4th, where he had a decent run at an eagle, and went under again at the par-four 9th. And he appeared to get stronger as his round progressed, sinking a long putt on the demanding par-four 15th to go two under, before a birdie at the next hole helped him finish with a 68.
“It’s definitely the best I’ve played for a while,” he said. “I wanted to be sharp going out and I was. I hit a couple of putts that lipped, birdied the par five and felt like I should have birdied the 6th. So I was one under through six and I felt like I played great. The score didn’t quite reflect how well I played, but I’m certainly happy with the start. But tomorrow will be a different challenge.”
Rose did admit to owning a new driver, with more loft on it, which may have helped. “It was an adjustment I made this week and it worked really well.”
Spieth has often looked the greatest player in the world, if only he could hitch a lift to the green. Putting is his special talent but he did it 33 times here, while his driving was often terrific. “That’s a question I almost never get asked,” he said, when someone wanted to know what was wrong with his short game.
“I very much improved tee to green. I struck the ball tremendously well. It just seemed like it just didn’t want to go in the hole once I got on the green.”
Last year, with one hole to play at St Andrews, Spieth had the chance to win his third successive major, having become only the sixth man to win the Masters and US Open back to back. But his luck deserted him then and it has not gone so well this year. He lost his No1 ranking and, with a five-shot lead going into the last nine of the Masters, shot a quadruple-bogey seven on the 12th.
There were three bogey fives on Thursday, to cancel out his three birdies, and the final hole seemed to sum up his day. He got a free drop after driving into the railings but then hit a feeble third stroke. “I still feel really good about where I am right now because I have been putting so well, and I’ve been working hard on my tee to green game, and it was there,” said Spieth.
On the 5th his caddie, Michael Greller, had impatient words with photographers. PG Wodehouse wrote: “There were three things in the world that he held in the smallest esteem – slugs, poets and caddies with hiccups.” Caddies who argue with photographers must be equally distracting.
While Rose and Spieth generally walked together down the fairway, the third member of the group, Ireland’s Shane Lowry, would often disappear from view like an estranged sibling who appeared to have a strange aversion to short grass.
Lowry entered the tournament in strong form but finished his round on seven over. The fairway must have looked as slim as a pencil to him and he lacked touch around the green when he eventually reached it. There were six bogeys, and a double bogey on the 430-yard par-four 12th, when he went off the green to the left with his second shot to go five shots over, before two more bogeys on 17 and 18.
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