SANDWICH, England — Louis Oosthuizen put those runner-up finishes in the last two majors out of mind and soared to the top of the leaderboard Thursday, giving The Open a familiar feel.
Normalcy returned to the wind-swept links at Royal St. George’s in other ways, too.
The roars and cheers of the biggest golf crowd since the pandemic rumbled around this quirky course off Sandwich Bay, just like pre-COVID times.
“It feels inside the ropes, from the first tee forward, the most normal of any tournament we have played thus far relative to that same tournament in previous years,” Spieth said.
Oosthuizen saved par from a fairway bunker on No. 18 for a 6-under 64. That tied the lowest opening round at Royal St. George’s, previously set by Christy O’Connor Jr. in 1981.
That didn’t look as though it would be the case after the South African opened with seven straight pars. He followed with six birdies in his next nine holes.
“I’ve learnt over the years playing major championships that patience is the key thing,” said Oosthuizen, who has six runner-up finishes in majors since winning The Open at St. Andrews in 2010.
Oosthuizen and Spieth were among the morning starters who enjoyed the best of the conditions, notably soft bounces on the most undulating fairways and greens on the Open rotation.
Yet many of the world’s best couldn’t take advantage.
Patience already might be wearing thin for U.S. Open champion Jon Rahm, who slapped his thigh in frustration after making a double-bogey at No. 9, where he took two shots to get out of a pot bunker in the fairway. He shot 71, like Bryson DeChambeau, who spent much of his first round up to his knees in deep grass — and cursing his driver, saying it “sucks” — after being unable to use his power to overwhelm Royal St. George’s.
Shane Lowry, the Open winner in 2019, also shot 71 in front of a crowd that has a daily capacity of 32,000 this week. Not since Royal Portrush, where Lowry won, has any golf tournament seen so many spectators through the gates.
With last year’s event canceled because of the pandemic, Lowry could finally be announced at an Open as the reigning champion golfer.
“It was a very special day for me,” he said.
Not so for the majority of the afternoon starters, who encountered more prolonged gusts off the English Channel and slightly drier conditions.
Rory McIlroy birdied the last to salvage a 70 in his bid for his first major title in seven years. Justin Thomas shot 72. Phil Mickelson shot 80, his highest start ever in The Open, that left him tied for last place.
Benjamin Hebert and Webb Simpson, with rounds of 66 that tied them for fourth place with three others, had the best scores from the afternoon. Former PGA champion Collin Morikawa, in his first links test, and English favorite Tommy Fleetwood were at 67.
Fleetwood would like nothing more than to become the first Englishman with his name on that silver jug since Nick Faldo in 1992.
“It’s been a long time since an Englishman has won the Open, and I would love to be the next one. So we’ll see,” Fleetwood said.
Brian Harman was tied for second with Spieth after making five birdies in his first eight holes and finishing with a 65. Top-ranked Dustin Johnson hit 14 greens in regulation and said he was pleased with his round of 68 that had him in a tie for 19th.
The return of the spectators made it feel like a proper Open, especially on the hill overlooking the par-3 6th hole that attracted some of the biggest galleries of a day that started with a blue, cloudless sky.
Just before midday, the group containing Stewart Cink, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer all hit tee shots inside 6 feet of the pin. As they walked onto the green, one spectator shouted: “You three should be professionals.”
To which Kaymer’s caddie, Craig Connolly, replied back across the green: “You should be a comedian.”
Said Spieth: “I feel like the fans here are very knowledgeable about the sport, and they’re also having a great time.”
Louis Oosthuizen leads The Open after first-round 64
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