Commentary

Stars shine in Round 1

Updated: July 21, 2012, 3:05 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

Rory McIlroyStuart Franklin/Getty ImagesRory McIlroy is one of six major winners near the top of the leaderboard at the Open Championship.
LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England -- A plaque beside the 17th fairway commemorates Bobby Jones' victory here in 1926, the first Open Championship played at Royal Lytham & St. Annes and the first of three Claret Jugs won by the game's greatest amateur.

Since that time, a legendary list of players has prevailed at this northwest England venue, and the general consensus is that is no fluke. Royal Lytham seems to produce champions with pedigree, and the first day of the 2012 Open did not stray from that notion.

Six major champions dot the first 12 places on the leaderboard, including Tiger Woods, the 14-time major winner who has prevailed three times in the game's oldest tournament. It was Woods who pointed out that the list of winners here is no fluke, that it is a ball striker's course.

Woods hit 13 of 14 fairways and 15 of 18 greens in a round of 67 that could have been better had a few more putts dropped. He ended up with 30 for the round and is 3 strokes back of leader Adam Scott.

Dobbs And I think, on a golf course like this, the cream will rise to the top. And I think you're seeing that with the leaderboard today.

-- Rory McIlroy
"It's a fair test. It's a very fair test,'' said Rory McIlroy, who rebounded from a bad break at the 15th hole to make two closing birdies and shoot 67. "And I think, on a golf course like this, the cream will rise to the top. And I think you're seeing that with the leaderboard today.''

Scott nearly equaled the major championship scoring record, shooting a 64 that was 1 stroke off the best ever shot in one of the four Grand Slam events. It was his lowest score in a major, something he has yet to win.

But in pursuit are a bunch of guys who do own some championship hardware. Paul Lawrie ('99 Open Championship) and Zach Johnson ('07 Masters) are tied with Nicolas Colsaerts and trail by a stroke.

Ernie Els (three majors, including the '02 Open Championship), Bubba Watson (this year's Masters), Graeme McDowell ('10 U.S. Open), McIlroy ('11 U.S. Open) and Woods (14 majors) are tied for sixth along with Japan's Toshinori Muto at 67.

If you're counting, that's 22 majors among the top 12.

"I think this is a good golf course, a fair golf course,'' said three-time major champion Padraig Harrington, who shot 70. "It's not tricky or anything like that, so I can't see it in any shape or form throwing up an odd winner this week. It's as solid a golf course as you could want.''

What makes it so?

Well, it's not the length. Royal Lytham was stretched to just 6,973 yards Thursday, quite short by today's standards. Of course, 205 bunkers make for an imposing test, as does rough that swallows golf balls.

There was little in the way of treachery from the weather, which provided a nice, pleasant day of golf for most. The wind was down; the rain was minimal; and the scoring was quite good. And yet, there were still plenty of casualties.

Despite birdieing the first two holes, Lee Westwood shot 73. So did Phil Mickelson. Defending champion Darren Clarke had 76.

"It is an odd sort of place," said Tony Jacklin, who won here in 1969 at age 25 to become the first English golfer to win the title in 18 years; he would win the U.S. Open a year later. "It isn't what you would call pretty. It's got that unusual railway going past it, a par-3 for a first hole, the red brick houses all around, and you never see the sea although it is still total links golf from start to finish.

"What makes it forever stand out is that it is such a stern test. It's relentless on you mentally. The wind always feels as if it's directly in your face the entire back nine wherever your ball comes to rest. The bunkers never let up, and, if you get in more than a few of those in 18 holes, you'll be tearing your hair out. It's all the golf course you would ever want."

Jacklin is among the long list of impressive champions here that includes Bobby Locke, Peter Thomson, Bob Charles, Gary Player, Seve Ballesteros (twice), Tom Lehman and David Duval.

Since the Official World Golf Ranking began in 1986, every winner at Royal Lytham has been ranked No. 1 at some point -- something no other venue can say.

Jones got things rolling in 1926, hitting a crucial shot on the par-4 17th that led to a par 4, rattling fellow competitor Al Waltrous, who had hit the green first but three-putted. Jones parred the last for his first major outside of the United States, the first of three Open Championship titles.

There have been nine Opens here since, not a surprise winner among them.

"The list of champions here have all been just wonderful ball strikers because you have to be able to shape the golf ball both ways here,'' Woods said. "You can't just hit it one way.''

So far, the leaderboard suggests the trend will continue at Royal Lytham.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com