English faves, defending champ struggle at Open
Lee Westwood looked glumly at his ball lodged up against the side of a pot bunker and considered his options. Unfortunately, none of them involved a normal swing in the direction of the hole.
So, he turned around, whacked at the ball left-handed with a right-handed club, and settled for just getting it back into the fairway.
Yep, another bogey.
Westwood, the world's third-ranked player and generally considered the best golfer never to win a major, limped to the finish with a disappointing 3-over 73 Thursday in the opening round of the British Open. What made it even worse was that Royal Lytham & St. Annes was ripe for the taking, the rain largely holding off, the breeze from the Irish Sea barely rippling the flags.
''Just one of those things,'' he said with a shrug. ''You can't have great form all the time.''
Westwood wasn't the only local favorite to disappoint in a year when the home country had high hopes of snapping a 43-year drought in golf's oldest major.
Ian Poulter plodded to a 71. Paul Casey collapsed on the back nine and signed for a 72. Justin Rose had a miserable day all around, winding up with a 74. The only Englishmen to shoot in the 60s were former cricket player James Morrison (68) and up-and-comer Matthew Baldwin (69), who actually made a point to get Westwood's autograph during a practice round - then outplayed him when it counted.
Another crowd pleaser, defending champ Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland, joined in the misery. After a near-perfect tee shot on the par-3 opening hole, he struck a terrible putt from about 10 feet that never had a chance. It was pretty much all downhill from there on the way to a 76. Only seven players posted a higher score.
''I don't think you could publish my thoughts right now,'' Clarke told reporters when he came off the 18th green. ''I played poorly and I putted worse. It was disappointing, because at practice, I hit it really, really well. But what can I do? I tried my best on every shot, but unfortunately it wasn't there again.
''A bad day at the office.''
Actually, Clarke's struggles weren't that much of a surprise. He's done little since that magical week at Royal St. George's, following up his first major title by missing the cut at both the PGA Championship and the Masters, sitting out the U.S. Open with an injury, and barely making a dent at the lesser-known events on his schedule.
But players such as Westwood (ranked third in the world) and Rose (No. 9) were expected to shine. Poulter, who was runner-up at Birkdale in 2008 and has played well in the pressure-cooker environment of Ryder Cup, also was rated as a potential challenger by no less than Tony Jacklin, who way back in 1969 won at this very same course.
Jacklin remains the last English golfer to capture an Open title in England (Nick Faldo's three titles all came in Scotland). Now, barring a major turnaround, it looks as though the streak will continue.
Westwood has little confidence in his game at the moment.
''I'm at a point right now where it goes left or right,'' he said. ''I'm not often straight.''
World No. 1 Luke Donald was the best of the English elite, putting up an even-par 70 that only looked so-so given the calm conditions. A staggering 36 players shot in the 60s, leaving Donald with plenty of competitors to pass and a six-shot deficit to make up on the leader, Australia's Adam Scott.
''I felt like I played pretty solid,'' said Donald, who managed a lone birdie and 16 pars before a bogey on the 18th. ''I didn't get as much out of it as I would have liked. One birdie. But really it was kind of an easy 70.''
There was nothing easy about Westwood's round. Even though he started with back-to-back birdies, he figured it was more the result of good fortune than good shots. He didn't feel comfortable with his swing. He knew it wouldn't last.
At the third, Westwood dumped his approach into a bunker, zipped one out over the green, pitched back on and two-putted for a double-bogey. He rallied a bit with two more birdies, making the turn at 1 under, but the errant shots really caught up with him on the return to the clubhouse. The worst of them came at the 14th, where that pot bunker gobbled up his ball and forced him to improvise a shot just to get it out.
''I can't remember the last time I had to play a left-handed shot, never mind out of the bunker,'' Westwood moaned.
He closed with four bogeys in his last six holes, leaving him more concerned about working out the kinks in his swing than contending for the claret jug.
''You're going to make a few birdies out there,'' Westwood said. ''But sooner or later, you'll get found out.''
Casey was once one of the world's top-ranked players, until a shoulder injury sent him tumbling to 77th in the standings. He insists that his shoulder is fine, but he's got to find some consistency in his game. He arrived at Royal Lytham mired in a terrible slump, having missed the cut in nine out of 12 events he's played this season on the PGA and European tours.
So actually, he found plenty of reasons to be optimistic after shooting a 3-under 31 on the front side. Never mind that he blew up to a 41 on the return nine, making double-bogeys at the 15th and the 17th and closing with a bogey.
''I take a lot of good out of that,'' Casey said. ''That's the best golf I've played so far this year. That front nine was great. It was wonderful stuff.''
Too bad it didn't last.
But England's drought at the Open looks like it will.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963