Enough about 2003. Thomas Bjorn is trying to create some new memories at Royal St. George’s.
Bjorn opened with a 5-under 65 to claim a share of the lead in the British Open, the major title he was denied the last time it came to this course on the English seaside.
Not that he’s dwelling on what happened eight years ago.
”I’m 40 years old,” the Dane said, ”and there might just be a little bit more in me.”
Bjorn ripped off three straight birdies coming down the stretch. Even with a stumble at the final hole, he was in the clubhouse with a one-stroke lead over Miguel Angel Jimenez and Lucas Glover.
Later in the day, 20-year-old English amateur Tom Lewis tied Bjorn with a 65 of his own.
US Open champion Rory McIlroy got off to a sluggish start but was still in the mix, six strokes behind the leader.
While McIlroy was the clear favorite, Bjorn didn’t even get into the tournament until Monday as an alternate, giving him a chance to make up for his collapse at the ’03 Open.
That’s when he squandered a two-stroke lead over the final three holes, largely by needing three swings to escape a bunker on the par-3 16th. Ben Curtis went on to claim the claret jug in one of golf’s greatest shockers.
”I probably didn’t dwell on it as much as some people thought,” Bjorn said. ”I think the only really hard time I had with it was when I came back to Troon the year after. I felt that was difficult because it just became so fresh in the mind: the Open championship.”
Bjorn got some good fortune at the 16th this time. He thought his 9-iron was headed for the bunker, but the ball took a fortunate bounce and rolled down toward the cup. He made the putt for his third birdie in a row.
”We all know what it’s like,” Bjorn said. ”A bounce here or there, and then it goes either wrong or right. Today, it went my way.”
Through it all, there was no thought of trying to make up for the last Open at Royal St. George’s.
”A lot of people make a lot of things about that, but the only way I can play golf is to concentrate on the shot in front of me,” he said. ”It never entered my mind.”
He didn’t have to worry about Curtis, the one who beat him last time. The American champion will have trouble just making the cut after shooting a 77.
McIlroy had not played since his eight-stroke win at Congressional last month. The 22-year-old from Northern Ireland looked a bit rusty and put himself in an early hole by making bogeys on two of his first three holes.
McIlroy had trouble hitting it straight off the tee and looked shaky with the putter, hardly resembling the player who blew away the field for his first major title and set a US Open scoring record at 16 under.
Of course, there’s still plenty of time for a comeback. All eyes will surely remain on McIlroy, who has emerged as the new face of golf while Tiger Woods sits out his second straight major, trying to heal an injured leg.
”It was a day where you just needed to grind out a score,” McIlroy said. ”Anywhere around even par was a good start.”
Playing right behind McIlroy was England’s Luke Donald, ranked No. 1 in the world and coming off a runaway win in Scottish Open. His day went much like McIlroy’s, leaving them both to settle for 71s.
The 47-year-old Jimenez capped off a bogey-free round with a brilliant chip at the 18th. The portly Spaniard saved par with a short putt after he drove into the tall grass. Then, lighting up his familiar cigar, he headed off to the putting green.
No one finished stronger than a couple of Americans.
The bearded Glover, who won the 2009 US Open, birdied the final three holes for his 66, most impressively at the tough 18th.
Dustin Johnson was struggling through a mediocre round when he suddenly caught fire at the 14th. He had two straight birdies leading to the shot of the day — a hole-in-one at the 16th.
The ball rocketed onto the green, slammed against the flagstick and disappeared from view. Back on the tee, Johnson high-fived playing partner Ian Poulter, celebrating the first ace at the Open since Thomas Levet’s in the final round at Turnberry two years ago.
Johnson made another birdie at 17 before a closing bogey left him with a 70.
Another American, Kyle Stanley, was among those at 68. He had only qualified for the tournament on Sunday with a runner-up finish in the John Deere Classic, then hustled across the Atlantic on a chartered jet to compete in his first major as a pro. Even after a bogey at the 18th, he chest-bumped his caddie, a big smile on his face.
The U.S. is eager for Glover, Johnson or Stanley — heck, anyone — to break through. The Americans have gone five straight majors without a title, their longest drought in the modern Grand Slam era.
Also at 68 was another alternate, England’s Simon Dyson, along with Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland and Pablo Larrazabal of Spain. Poulter and 51-year-old Mark Calcavecchia were among those at 69. Sergio Garcia was another stroke back.
Defending champion Louis Oosthuizen was coming to the end of a disappointing round at 3 over. Phil Mickelson, the last American to win a major, was even on the day with three holes left.
The weather is always the biggest unknown at the British Open. Punishing gusts whipped across Royal St. George’s during the practice rounds, and storms can blow in off the sea at any time.
For the most part, the nasty weather held off Thursday.
The wind wasn’t daunting on Day 1, especially for those who went out in the afternoon in relatively benign conditions. There was an occasional heavy shower in the morning, but the course dried out as the day went on.
Bjorn played well early in the year, winning the Qatar Masters against a strong field and beating Tiger Woods in the World Match Play Championship. But the Dane missed the cuts in four of five events before the Open, needing help just to make it to the first tee.
He was one of the last players into the field, getting his spot Monday night when Vijay Singh withdrew.
”I’ve been very uncomfortable on the golf course for a long time,” Bjorn said. ”If I can last all the way until Sunday, well, only time will tell. But I’m very, very delighted with today.”
Bjorn did tear up when someone asked about his father, who died a couple of months ago after a long illness. The loss had a profound effect on the son, undoubtedly contributing to his recent slide.
”He meant a lot to me,” Bjorn said. ”He would have been very proud of what I did.”