Golf / The 121st Open: Floyd flourishes in the twilight zone: Woosnam leads the European charge as the Americans dictate on a day which proves a breeze for the old and the bold: Tim Glover reports from Muirfield

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The Independent Online
IAN WOOSNAM and Nick Faldo, partners in the Ryder Cup and rivals in everything else, made a pre-emptive strike in the 121st Open Championship yesterday. They kept honourable company on a cosmopolitan leader board. Open it is called and open it is after a first round noticeable by the absence of a healthy breeze.

Not only the top Europeans were at home at the home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. The American Ryder Cup players, Ray Floyd and Steve Pate, set the standard at 64, seven under par, and they lead by a stroke from Woosnam and Gordon Brand Jnr and by two from Faldo, South Africa's Ernie Els and two other Americans, John Cook and Lee Janzen.

If there was an element of them and us about the confrontation, confirmation came with a remarkable remark from Floyd. Apropos of nothing, he referred to Faldo's victory in the Masters at Augusta two years ago. 'He didn't win it, Ray Floyd gave it to him,' the American said. To recap, Faldo won a play-off at the 11th, the second extra hole after Floyd hit his approach shot into the water.

That was not, he maintained somewhat mystifyingly, what cost him the tournament. Holding a one-shot lead playing the 17th in the final round, he made a conservative approach, took three putts and dropped a shot. 'I made a tactical error,' Floyd said yesterday. 'That's where I lost it. It is the most difficult loss I've ever faced. There will never be another one that affects me more than that.'

Never is a long time but, for the moment, so far so good for Floyd. This is his best score in an opening round of an Open by five strokes. 'You can't win it in one round but you can lose it in any of the four,' he said. At the age of 49 Floyd says he is playing the best golf of his life. Later this year, when he makes the big 50, he will make his debut with the fuller figures on the senior circuit. 'Age to me is a number,' he said. 'It doesn't really matter. I enjoy what I'm doing. I work very hard to keep my flexibility. I can still rotate my shoulders and get my hips out of the way.'

Some players in the field of 156 would welcome a sea change in the weather but Floyd, runner-up to Fred Couples in this year's Masters, is not one of them. 'Conditions are perfect,' he said. Floyd was fourth in the Open in 1976, second to Jack Nicklaus at St Andrews in 1978 and in 1987, Faldo's year, he was two shots behind with nine holes to play. He did not say that he handed that one to Faldo. Victory this time would secure Floyd's place in the Hall of Fame alongside Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Nicklaus, the only players to have won all four major championships.

Floyd, who has won the Masters, the US Open and the US PGA championships, hit 17 greens in regulation. 'That's about as good as I can play,' he said, 'and I putted beautifully. I have a good feeling.' Floyd's 64 included eight birdies, one bogey: out in 32 back in 32. Pate's 64 contained seven birdies and he came home in 31. 'I putted very well,' he said. 'I never three-putted. I don't feel I'm swinging that well and I have not played well since the Masters. I'm just aiming to miss the bunkers off the tee. It doesn't hurt me not to hit it into the middle of the green.'

Faldo took route 66, out in 33 back in 33, and a bogey five at the first, where he hit his approach into a bunker to the left of the green, was his only blemish. He eagled the fifth where he hit a two-iron through the green and holed out with an eight-iron chip and run.

'It's a nice-looking number,' he said of his 66. 'You had to be aggressive and you had to take advantage of the easy conditions. I was trying to hit the pin all the way.' When Faldo won here five years ago they were battening down the hatches in the Firth of Forth and he would like to see the wind get up. Nevertheless, the bookmakers make Faldo the 4-1 favourite, with Woosnam 5-1 and Floyd, who began the day 50-1, at 10-1.

It became apparent that Muirfield was somnolent (no wind to speak of and tolerable rough) when Sandy Lyle went round without a single bogey and Orrin Vincent III shot 67. Vincent graduated from the University of Washington last June before graduating at the European Tour qualifying school.

He has won only pounds 4,900 from 15 tournaments in Europe, has missed the cut 10 times and has never been in the top 25. In the Austrian Open he shot 92 after taking 14 at one hole. He went out of bounds five times. Now he has taken to wearing glasses. A lack of form has not deterred this 23-year-old son of Orrin Vincent II, a Las Vegas club professional. Earlier in the week Vincent III gambled pounds 5 on himself at 500-1 and last night in the Lothians a sweaty Scottish bookmaker was phoning his travel agent (a transfer charge call, of course).

Woosnam, whose previous best score in a major championship was 68, had seven birdies and a solitary bogey at the 18th where he drove into a bunker on the left. Because of a backlog he had a long wait on the 17th hole and lost concentration. However, this is a different Ian Woosnam to the one who cursed his way round Gleneagles last week. 'My swing felt really great,' he said. 'I'm in with a good chance. You couldn't get the course much easier. If it wasn't a major I could have shot 62.' Woosnam has been transformed, he remarked coyishly, by sighting a light at the end of the tunnel on the eve of the championship. 'I discovered something last night,' he said. What? 'I'll tell you on Sunday.'

Brand Jnr, a Scot based in Bristol, has not won an event since 1989 but yesterday he discovered a missing link - inspiration. He found it from the galleries, he found it from his father, a club professional, and he found it on the famous links from where he could see Burntisland, his birthplace.

Colin Montgomerie, another Anglo-Scot, is five over par on 76. 'It was horrendous,' he said, 'my worst round of the year. There are four things you have to do on this course: drive well, hit good irons and chip and putt and all of them were terrible.' Nicklaus shares the sentiment after a 75 which today threatens to put him, as far as being a contender is concerned, on a par with Ross Perot.

(Photograph omitted)