For the second time in three years Graeme McDowell held the clubhouse lead in the first round of the Open Championship yesterday; yet this time around the Ulsterman appears so much more likely to retain this coveted position. Last week's Scottish Open victor is in the form of his golfing life and playing in the conditions that formulated his golfing life. McDowell is clearly partial to a bit of wind. Almost as partial as Royal Birkdale.
This was a torrid opening day at the Southport links, when each and every one of the 156 competitors had at least one bogey on their card. McDowell and his fellow early pacesetters, Rocco Mediate and Robert Allenby, took full advantage of going out in the best of the weather to record one-under 69s. In behind them on level par was a group including Greg Norman.
In many respects the veteran's jaunt down memory fairway was the biggest news; especially when put alongside the disgraceful actions of Sandy Lyle – three years Norman's junior – who walked off after just 10 holes. In contrast, Norman battened down the hatches and fought on to a remarkable 70. The 53-year-old has not played in an Open for three years, any other major for five years, and is only here to warm up for next week's Senior Open at Troon. After this wintry experience Norman can hardly claim to be warm. But boy, does his game still sizzle
So, too, does that of McDowell. The pride of Portrush revealed he ventured out with a game plan "to treat every 18 holes as a series of little challenges where par would be a great score". In the event the 28-year-old notched up 15 of them with just the one bogey on the almost impossible sixth and two birdies downwind to finish. "I feel like a different player now to two years ago," said McDowell, who has already cemented his position in September's Ryder Cup. "I was a rabbit in the headlights at Hoylake. Then I didn't have a lot of belief in my game, couldn't string four rounds together. Now I know I can."
Mediate has also enjoyed a recent rocket to his confidence. At the US Open last month, the 45-year-old took Tiger Woods to sudden death in an 18-hole play-off and proceeded to become America's grinning hero. Yesterday the Pennsylvanian was at it again, overcoming a sluggish start with incredible panache and positivity.
To play the last 13 holes here in four-under was a feat that amazed everyone, particularly considering the back condition he suffers that requires a following physio to snap it back in during his round. Mediate is a popular character in the locker room and congratulations carried on coming to him, McDowell and the Aussie Allenby long into the night. At the same time, some of his playing pals quietly informed Rocco how fortunate he had been. They say the scoreboard never lies. Fair enough. But on topsy-turvy days such as this it does not begin to tell the whole story. To comment that the morning starters received the rough end of the draw was like labelling the conditions that greeted those poor dolts as "inclement". They were forced to play through a consistent downpour and high winds and then suffered the further torture of watching the rains disappear and the gusts drop markedly.
At the very least there was a two-shot difference, although some of the most affected professionals were inevitably claiming it to be more. Ernie Els and Vijay Singh shot 80s, while Phil Mickelson, the acting world No 1 in the absence of Woods, slumped to a 79.
It was Els' worst score in 19 years of playing in his favourite major by four shots. The South African's shell-shocked expression summed up an opening morning that ranks right up there with the most difficult of them in 137 years of the Open.
Not everyone on the early shift played their way out of the tournament. Retief Goosen conjured a one-over 71 that seemed destined to take the first-day honours until the golfing gods took their finger off the carnage button. For the home crowd, Ian Poulter fired a courageous 72, while Colin Montgomerie put a lifetime of despising anything stronger than a breeze behind him with a 73. But on looking at the brightening sky the experienced Scot knew the significance.
"We've had the worst of the weather, no doubt about it," declared Montgomerie. "When you come here, you pray that the Open is fair at least, so let's hope tomorrow follows a similar path weather-wise. Let's hope we afternoon starters get a decent run at it. But he's in charge."
As Monty spoke he pointed to the sky. Well, it made a change from blaming the Royal and Ancient. The venerable organisers were inevitably going to take some flak as the bitter professionals peered down the horror of their numbers. None of them laid in quite like Jerry Kelly, a man for whom the phrase "whingeing American" seems invented.
"This is the worse set-up I've ever seen," raged the Wisconsinite following an 83. "I couldn't even reach four of the fairways off the tees. They knew this weather was coming yesterday and should have used common sense – they didn't."
Kelly's contention was that the R&A should have moved the tees forward to make the three hardest par-fours – the sixth, 11th and 16th – shorter. Yet as Peter Dawson, the chief executive of the R&A, later explained, it was not quite as easy as that. Reaching the fairways on the sixth and the 16th was not a problem to most, while there is not another tee to use on the 11th.
"It was a tough day by the seaside," was Dawson's appraisal, although he warned it could get even tougher. Today will witness more of the same – sorry Monty, but there will probably be no respite – while on Saturday there is, in Dawson's words "a 50-50 chance of winds of more than 45mph. If it was that colossal and balls were moving on the greens, we may have to suspend play," he added with a wince. The fun has only just begun.
Tee-off times for today's second round
(GB or Irl unless stated)
06.30 J van de Velde (Fr), S Webster, A Tampion (Aus)
06.41 P Walton, D Smail (NZ), M Letzig (US)
06.52 P Waring, H Otto (SA), K Stadler (US)
07.03 Paul Lawrie, R Mediate (US), A Cabrera (Arg)
07.14 N Fasth (Swe), M O'Meara (US), M Campbell (NZ)
07.25 G McDowell, R Sabbatini (SA), T Hamilton (US)
07.36 J Furyk (US), N Dougherty, C Villegas (Col)
07.47 R Karlsson (Swe), G Norman (Aus), W Austin (US)
07.58 R Allenby (Aus), S Stricker (US), *B Herbert (Fr)
08.09 A Scott (Aus), Z Johnson (US), P Larrazabal (Sp)
08.20 G Havret (Fr), T Clark (SA), S Cink (US)
08.31 Wen-chong Liang (Ch), F Jacobson (Swe), J Overton (US)
08.42 T Immelman (SA), S Hansen (Den), A Kim (US)
08.58 M A Jimenez (Sp), S Ames (Can), C Howell III (US)
09.09 P Hanson (Swe), B Bryant (US), R Pampling (Aus)
09.20 R Imada (Japan), S Garcia (Sp), S O'Hair (US)
09.31 S Appleby (Aus), B Snedeker (US), R Fisher
09.42 A Yano (Japan), J Edfors (Swe), T Lehman (US)
09.53 S Wakefield, J Williamson (US), J Kingston (SA)
10.04 G Bourdy (Fr), D Chia (Malay), J Rollins (US)
10.15 P Marksaeng (Thai), *C Wood, S McCarron (US)
10.26 A Wall, A Noren (Swe), E Porter (Aus)
10.37 P Baker, H Iwata (Japan), A Cejka (Ger)
10.48 D Labelle (US), Chih-bing Lam (Sing), J-F Lima (Por)
10.59 M Wiegele (Aut), A Que (Phil), D McGuigan
11.10 J Lomas, Y Tsukada (Japan), P Appleyard
11.41 L Glover (US), C Parry (Aus), S Dyson
11.52 J-B Gonnet (Fr), P Perez (US), P Fowler (Aus)
12.03 S Kjeldsen (Den), B Jones (Aus), M Kuchar (US)
12.14 J Kelly (US), D Fichardt (SA), D McGrane
12.25 G Storm, S Strange (Aus)
12.36 R Green (Aus), M Calcavecchia (US), A Hansen (Den)
12.47 T Watson (US), J Rose, A Baddeley (Aus)
12.58 G Ogilvy (Aus), O Wilson, D Love III (US)
13.09 R Goosen (SA), P Harrington, J Leonard (US)
13.20 R Sterne (SA), H Stenson (Swe), J Quinney (US)
13.31 H Mahan (US), V Singh (Fiji), *R Saxton (Neth)
13.42 M Kaymer (Ger), S Verplank (US), E Els (SA)
13.53 D Howell, A Romero (Arg), J B Holmes (US)
14.09 L Westwood, K J Choi (S Kor), B Curtis (US)
14.20 N O'Hern (Aus), I Poulter, P Goydos (US)
14.31 P Mickelson (US), H Tanihara (Japan), P Casey
14.42 B Weekley (US), C Montgomerie, M Weir (Can)
14.53 H Slocum (US), R Finch, J Daly (US)
15.04 D Duval (US), S Khan, D Frost (SA)
15.15 R Beem (US), P Edberg (Swe), *T Sherreard
15.26 M Matsumura (Japan), T Gillis (US), B Hume
15.37 S Kai (Japan), T Petrovic (US), D Horsey
15.48 A Canete (Arg), C Barlow (US), P Archer
15.59 J Elson, *R Blizard (Aus), J Bevan
16.10 A Blyth (Aus), J Howarth, J Cunliffe (SA)
16.21 T Aiken (SA), G Boyd, B Lamb (Aus)
* denotes amateur
Live: BBC 2 09.00-19.15.
Highlights: Today at the Open, BBC 2 19.15-20.00.
Cloudy with further spells of rain or drizzle, especially at first. Minimum temperature 13C, maximum 17C. Moderate to fresh west to south-west breezes (15-20mph).