Golf / The Open Championship: Zoeller takes share of the lead via route 66: Dragon's teeth of Royal St George's are drawn as famous four are pursued by Faldo while a Spanish master joins fray

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The Independent Online
ROYAL ST GEORGE'S is a playground of the rich and yesterday the famous inherited the ancient links. Route 66 was the favoured path in the first round of the 122nd Open Championship here and the name of Fuzzy Zoeller was the most senior, in terms of years, at the top of the leaderboard.

Zoeller is 41, Jack Nicklaus 53, and they performed so creditably their paths crossed inside the press tent. 'If only I could live that long,' Zoeller said, looking at the Golden Bear. Nicklaus shot the glance back. 'Keep living the way you do and you'll be lucky to,' he replied. Zoeller had the last laugh. He shot 66, as did his fellow American Mark Calcavecchia and two Australians, Greg Norman and Peter Senior. Nicklaus joined a host of players, including the defending champion, Nick Faldo, on 69, one under par.

Zoeller won the Masters in 1979 and the US Open in 1984 and apart from a bad back has picked up very little since. Referring to the dodgy back, Zoeller said: 'It is nothing that a couple of belts of vodka can't cure. I don't really talk about the number of times it has bothered me. It's like the number of times you try to make love to your wife and she's got a headache. You don't count things like that.'

Zoeller did not compete in the Open at Muirfield last year because his form was too pitiful to import across the Atlantic. This is different and he regards himself as a genuine contender here on a course where he thought he could have won the championship in 1985. 'If I could have posted a decent score it would have been mine,' he said. The trouble is he took a double-bogey six at the 13th. Yesterday he had a par four after reaching the turn in 34.

What the players were presented with in the morning was a course very different from the one they had played in practice. Torrential rain on Wednesday evening and more of the same during the first round softened up the target. The dragon's teeth of Royal St George's were drawn by the weather, and the conditions were not only alien from earlier in the week but from the summer of 1985, when the Open was last held here.

In the first round eight years ago only 10 players scored below 70; more than that number broke par yesterday before the mats were laid for lunch on the oak tables in the clubhouse. It was, of course, St Swithin's Day and according to the legend we can expect rain for the next 40 days. Spectators weaved their way through the historic, and therefore cramped, lanes of Kent to Sandwich and most of them were prepared for an English summer.

They stood in muddy car parks, changed into waterproofs and carried beer crates which belonged at the rear of a Red Lion. The crates were empty but were suitable as a platform for watching play. Underfoot it was treacherous and there were several cases of spectators with broken limbs. While Nicklaus was playing the fifth hole there was a commotion. Somebody had collapsed. 'I asked him if it was my bad play that had bothered him,' Nicklaus said. 'He smiled and I knew he was OK.'

For the golfer, conditions, especially in the morning, were benevolent. There was hardly a breath of wind and the greens were soft and receptive. Among the early birds were Norman, Senior, Calcavecchia and the 20- year-old amateur champion, Iain Pyman. The amateur record for an Open is 66, set by the American Frank Stranahan in 1950. Pyman thought he should have equalled it.

Some caddies are invaluable, some are just excess baggage and Pyman has the perfect partner, his father Dennis. 'He knows my game better than anybody else,' Iain said. They have won the Yorkshire Foursomes twice in the last four years. Although an amateur, Iain plays golf full-time and as a result his mother, to help finance this glorious obsession, has taken a full-time job at a DIY store.

If you want to get ahead get a member of the family into do-it-yourself. In a practice round on Wednesday he played with Zoeller and John Daly and yesterday he was with Gary Player and Larry Mize. It might just as well have been another outing on the Yorkshire Moors. Pyman, who will play in the Masters at Augusta next April, was asked if Player, whom he outplayed, said anything to him. 'Yes,' the lad said. 'Good shot, good putt.' Pyman nearly had a hole in one on the sixth, where he hit a six-iron that stopped a foot short. At the 17th Pyman went back in time when his approach shot hit a clock on the left. He chipped to 15 feet and sank it to save par.

For Pyman, who plays at Sand Moor near Leeds, it was, apparently, simple. 'I played very well from tee to green,' he said, 'and I should have done a lot better.' A lot better than an opening round of 68 in the Open at Royal St George's? If Pyman lacks anything it is not confidence.

Alongside Pyman on 68 is Seve Ballesteros, another new face on the leaderboard. The Spaniard would have been up there on route 66 but for dropping strokes at the last two holes. Nevertheless his performance represents a considerable sea change from almost anything else he has done this season. The Open, which Ballesteros has won on three occasions, tends to bring the best out of him and he admitted that the support he received from an umbrella-carrying population was inspirational. 'It is,' he said, 'the best tournament in the world. I was pumped up by the people.'

If Ballesteros is the people's choice there is also support for Zoeller, Norman and Calcavecchia. Norman, the greatest golfer to have won only one major championship, the Open at Turnberry in 1986, sailed home in 31 with five birdies in a row from the 13th. Calcavecchia, the Open champion in 1989, and Senior did their best work on the easier front nine. Senior, who uses a broom-handle putter, went out in 31, equalling the best score recorded in an Open at Royal St George's. That was established by Henry Cotton when he won here in 1934. Cotton, I suspect, would have no truck with an elongated putter which is designed to numb the nerve ends of the nerve-racking game on the greens.

Pyman impresses, page 33

(Photograph omitted)

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