GULLANE, Scotland — A blue sky and a gentle breeze usually means ripe scoring conditions at the British Open. Just not on the brown links of Muirfield.
Zach Johnson handled it better than anyone Thursday. Helped along by a 45-foot eagle putt and only one bogey despite trouble lurking around every pot bunker, Johnson had a 5-under 66 for a one-shot lead, the first time he’s been atop the leaderboard at any major since he rallied to win the Masters six years ago.
Tiger Woods more than survived the late end of the draw, after the sun had thoroughly baked out the crispy greens and allowed only eight of the 20 rounds under par. He knocked one putt clear off the green, but 10 one-putts — most of them for pars — carried him to a 69, a good start in his bid to end his five-year drought in the majors.
“The golf course progressively got more dried out and more difficult as we played,” Woods said. “And I’m very pleased to shoot anything even par or better.”
And for all the talk about Muirfield’s men-only membership, at least the club doesn’t discriminate against age.
Mark O’Meara, the 56-year-old who won his claret jug in 1998 at Royal Birkdale, shot a 67 and nearly tied Johnson for the lead until his 25-foot birdie putt on the 18th took a hard spin out of the cup. Another former champion, 54-year-old Tom Lehman, opened with a 68.
It was an eclectic group who broke par, from major champions to players making their British Open debut. What they all had in common was finding a way to get through a firm, fast and frightening test at Muirfield that figures to get even harder if the Royal & Ancient doesn’t put some water on the links course.