Stacy Lewis in the mix at British
SOUTHPORT, England -- People have said it about Royal Birkdale for years, but when the person talking has a title bestowed by the Queen, it is best to pay attention.
"Like I've said, I think this is the fairest of the links courses because if you hit a good shot, you're in a good spot," said Dame Laura Davies, a winner at the course in 1986.
"Whereas some of them, you can just trundle off into those bunkers and you're chipping out backward and stuff. This one, it just demands good shots and if you hit them, you get rewarded."
Fair it might be, but never confuse Birkdale with being easy. That is why on such a perfect summer's day, with the course breathed on by the gentlest of sea breezes, scoring was higher than might be expected on the first day of the Women's British Open. Japan's Ayako Uehara topped the leaderboard with 4-under-par 68, one shot ahead of Mo Martin. Only a handful of others were under par, including Morgan Pressel at 70 and defending champion Stacy Lewis at 71.
It can take a while for those who have not grown up on these shores to appreciate the nuances of links golf, but it was at Birkdale in 2010 that both Lewis and Pressel suggest they started to "get it" -- and maybe Martin had a day like that here.
Links golf is rarely fair, due to the rolling undulations of the sand dunes that send golf balls all over the place. Birkdale is fairer than most because the fairways were laid out between the dunes -- which make for wonderful vantage points for spectators -- and are relatively flat. Balls hit into the correct spots tend to stay where they are meant to end up.
The main problem at Birkdale this year is a legacy of the particularly persistent winter rains that have left the rough thick and juicy, and not enough recent days like Thursday to burn it off to the more playable "wispy" version. Karen Stupples, the 2004 champion, called the rough "brutal," which is presumably only a notch or so below the "hellacious" she termed Royal Lytham in 2009.
In 2010, Yani Tseng won here at 11 under par. On Thursday, she birdied the last for an 82, 10 over par. The former world No 1 has dipped in form since her glory years, but on a course like this, the results get exaggerated.
Lewis, the current No. 1, was not prepared for links golf when she missed the cut during her debut in the championship at Lytham in 2009. But the next year at Birkdale she plodded on to finish tied for 31st and was then 11th at Carnoustie in 2011 and eighth at Hoylake in 2012 before winning last year.
Teeing up as defending champion, Lewis bogeyed the first hole and also the third. But from then on she only dropped one more shot and recovered to a 71.
At British Opens ...you have to hit high shots, low shots, bump it, putt it from 40 yards off the green, do whatever it takes.Morgan Pressel
"I knew I needed to stay patient and hung in there," she said. "You can't compound your mistakes. You can come back from a bogey, but it's hard from a double bogey."
Last year at St. Andrews, Pressel admitted to an initial aversion to the Old Course after missing the cut there in 2007. But she led with a round to play and finished tied for fourth.
"I hit driver everywhere that year and just hoped I didn't end up in a bunker," Pressel said. "Now I understand how penal these bunkers can be and how important it is to avoid them.
"I've gotten better at managing my game and hitting shots. At British Opens ... you have to hit high shots, low shots, bump it, putt it from 40 yards off the green, do whatever it takes."
On Thursday at Birkdale, Pressel avoided the errors that plagued most others on the opening stretch of holes -- perhaps the hardest on the traditional Open rota -- and turned in 33 before a level-par back nine.
"This is a good confidence-builder for me," she said. "I felt good coming in here. ... But you never know, every day you could be playing a completely different golf course. That's the unique thing about links golf. You're always going to end up with something unexpected that you haven't prepared for."
As for Martin, her lack of power off the tee is more than compensated for by her accuracy, and Birkdale proved the perfect fit. "I had a really good plan and executed it well," said the 31-year-old from California, who is playing the British Open for just the third time.
She was 57th in her debut two years ago and missed the cut last year, but she has embraced the challenge this year like never before.
"It's a phenomenal layout and requires a lot of strategy," she said. "Every hole, every shot is a test of its own. It really keeps you in the moment. It's a fun challenge.''