Give the Royal and Ancient Golf Club’s embattled chief executive, Peter Dawson, the vexed question of Muirfield’s membership policy any day of the week.
Better the outrage of disenfranchised women than the bitterness of affronted golfers. While this baked expanse of Scottish coast surrendered to Zach Johnson and the Spanish on the first day of the Open Championship, a cluster of high-end troupers were more than a little miffed at what they saw as bone-headed pin positions on bone-hard greens.
“The 8th hole is a joke and the 18th needs a windmill & clown face,” scoffed Ian Poulter on Twitter, his mood darkened by the par putt that lipped out at the last for a fourth bogey in five holes to leave him one over par. Phil Mickelson, who played superbly for his two-under 69, hoped the R&A would “let go of their ego” in setting up the course today.
“No 8 is probably the worst one that you’ll see. It won’t stop until it collects in a little level area about eight feet away,” Mickelson said.
“Playing early in very difficult conditions gave us at least a fighting chance. I love the fact that I shot under par, because it’s a very challenging course out there. I don’t expect anybody to beat the lead from the morning wave, I just don’t think it’s possible. Hopefully they [the R&A] will let go of their ego and set it up reasonable, but you just never know.”
Luke Donald was so upset after his 80 he left without comment. Dawson made a robust defence of a course he described as the best he has seen in his 13 years as the conscience of the game. “We’re conscious of player comments and have taken note as we plan how to set up the greens tomorrow. I do understand some players get frustrated,” he said. “It’s a very testing, tough Open championship but it’s far from unplayable.”
Dawson’s position was given considerable support by Shiv Kapur, whose six birdies in the opening seven holes suggested that any egos getting in the way of the golf belonged to the players.
Kapur was in the fourth last group, which looked anything but a graveyard slot. He closed on three under, reprising both the start and the finish of unofficial king of Spain, Miguel Angel Jimenez, who began with a hat-trick of birdies and was five under at the turn.
Muirfield landed a couple of blows on the Jimenez back nine, as it is entitled to do, but not with anything like the force with which it tickled Poulter’s ribs. Rafael Cabrera-Bello closed one better than his compatriot on four-under, and lobbed a sunny disposition into the pot for Dawson’s consideration.
“I was enjoying every second of the day as soon as I got here,” he said. “The weather was very good, it’s still sunny, so for us Spaniards, especially for me coming from the Canary Islands, that’s something I enjoy.”
Johnson carded his only bogey at the 14th and since he was six under at the time felt no anger towards this burnished belt of grass. Four successive pars to close saw him into the clubhouse lead with a fine 66, which was more ammunition for Dawson.
The dramatic collapse of Rory McIlroy and the prosaic performance of US Open champion Justin Rose left only the cameo of Sir Nick Faldo to prop up domestic interest in the morning. A par at the last spared Faldo the ignominy of an 80 and left him no worse than McIlroy on eight over par, not that he drew any pleasure from the ills of the disintegrating Ulsterman.
“I’m friends with Rory – don’t write it any other way,” Faldo said. “I’ve known him since he’s 12. He was a big part of my Faldo Series. I’m like big granddad, here, saying exactly those things. Just give it your full attention when you want to play golf. I’m trying to give him a little caring, loving help here.”
What McIlroy needs and palpably lacks is the capacity to dog out a bad day, to resist the impulse to walk away from a fight. McIlroy’s frank admission of his problem is leading him to the sports psychologists chair. We wish him well, but nature so deeply ingrained is not easily overturned by reasoned exchanges in leather chairs.
McIlroy is more vulnerable than most to confidence swings. When on top he is Mike Tyson at 20, unbeatable. When the spirit is low he is no better equipped to defend himself than was Frank Bruno under Tyson’s fire. This is not something that he can learned but a characteristic stamped at birth. A change of luck might be the best medicine for McIlroy. There is no bigger boost in golf than the sight of dropping putts. May the force be with him soon.
Tiger Woods is an entirely different specimen. This does not make him a better man, just better equipped to deal with the bad stuff. And there was plenty of that at the start of his round. His tee shot at the first was so far left it was kept in bounds only by a bush growing tight against a wall. After hitting a provisional that was only marginally improved, he found his original and took a penalty drop.
His ball was still mired in a tangle of trodden fescue. To the excited crowd that had massed around the mess it appeared he still had no shot, yet from this grassy tomb he would get down in three via a greenside bunker, and in so doing passed an inadvertent fitness test on his left elbow. He went to the turn one over but three birdies in four holes thrust him once more into the heart of a fascinating first day and, perhaps, gave those who think his bottle not what it was in major championships something to consider over dinner.
“There wasn’t a lot of talking out there,” Woods said of his afternoon with Graeme McDowell, who closed on four over, and Louis Oosthuizen, who withdrew with a leg injury after eight holes. “We were just trying to grind it out on that golf course. It is one of those courses that just got so difficult. I could see how guys were complaining about it.”