The Open: Former winners Louis Oosthuizen and Jordan Spieth to the fore in Kent
Louis Oosthuizen was the defending champion when The Open was held at Royal St George’s in 2011 after getting his hands on the Claret Jug at St Andrews. Now he’s trying to repeat that feat but the other way around.
The South African, who has finished second in the last two majors and six times in total since his success in this event at St Andrews in 2010, is out in front after the opening circuit in the 149th Open after a low-scoring day at Royal St George’s.
In a decent continuous breeze on the Kent coast, Oosthuizen started with seven straight pars before transforming his round with three straight birdies around the turn before a second spurt garnered gains at the 13th, 14th and 16th.
“In my mind, it was the perfect round,” declared the 38-year-old afterwards of a course-record seven-under-par 64, an effort that earned him a one-shot lead over 2017 champion Jordan Spieth and his fellow American, left-hander Brian Harman.
“I didn't make many mistakes,” added Oosthuizen, who couldn’t really land a glove on Phil Mickelson down the stretch in the US PGA Championship at Kiawah Island before being unable to answer Jon Rahm’s birdie-birdie finish in the US Open at Torrey Pines. “When I had good opportunities for birdie, I made the putts.”
On a day when defending champion Shane Lowry, who was playing in the same group, found himself on the back foot after starting bogey-bogey and then having to settle for a 71 along with third member Jon Rahm, Oosthuizen used that run of regulation figures early on to build confidence.
“I think I probably would have taken seven pars again,” he insisted. “I've learnt over the years playing major championships that patience is the key thing, and, even if you make bogeys, know that a lot of people are going to make bogeys.
“I was just very patient. I didn't really hit anything close enough to make birdies those first few holes, and then all of a sudden just made two good putts on eight and nine and got the ball rolling.”
The Mossel Bay man went through a spell where he was dabbling with different putters. “I've got a bag there at home that I might just throw in a river someday,” he admitted, having stuck with the one he’s now using and being rewarded for doing so.
“I found one that I really like the look of and now every time I go out and do a bit of work on the putting green, I just do the same work and the same drills and the same things and get into a really good routine on practice and when I get on the golf course. It has paid off for me.”
Oosthuizen was a class apart as he claimed the Claret Jug at St Andrews in 2010, winning by seven shots from Lee Westwood. “It gives me confidence going into majors knowing that I'm still competing in them and I've still got chances of winning,” he replied to being asked if those near misses in majors in the interim are playing on his mind.
“It definitely puts me in a better frame of mind going into the week. But, once the week starts, I need to get that out of my mind and just focus on every round and every shot.”
Spieth, who shares Oosthuizen’s liking for the unique challenge of links golf, was one-over early on before a run of four straight birdies put a spring in his step. No-one holes more putts than Spieth when they are feeling confident and further birdies at the 15th and 16th followed.
“There was only one hole where I was in the fescue today,” reported the Texan, having admitted his first reaction had been “wow” to seeing how high the rough is on the first hole when he arrived here earlier in the week.
“The rest I was in first cuts, getting away with a couple of tee shots that ended up in the first cut that maybe if it was firmer may have worked their way just into the fescue, and you can do just fine out of first cuts here.”
Spieth landed back-to-back majors when winning The Masters and US Open in 2015 before producing a brilliant finish to claim a three-shot success over Matt Kuchar in The Open at Royal Birkdale in 2017. He then suffered a dip in form before ending a victory drought of nearly four years in the Texas Open in April.
“Golf is a game played between the ears,” said Spieth. “When it's not going great, you can certainly lose quite a bit of confidence in it. That was the first time I've had to really try and build confidence back up, and it takes time.
“It's a combination of obviously getting things figured out mechanically but also then putting it to the test and mentally stepping up with enough oomph to go ahead and pull off some shots. You build the confidence by using that improvement I think physically on the course under pressure.
“By no means do I feel like I'm where I want to be mechanically yet, but this year has been a really, really good progression for me, and that's all I'm trying to do is just get a little bit better each day.”
Stewart Cink, the 2009 champion and continuing to show he can mix it with the best at 48, having won twice on the PGA Tour this season, carded a bogey-free 66 to sit alongside fellow American Webb Simpson, Canadian debutant Mackenzie Hughes, South African Dylan Fritttelli and Frenchman Benjamin Hebert.
World No 1 Dustin Johnson, who finished joint-second here behind Darren Clarke in 2011, opened with a 68, while Rory McIlroy picked up two birdies in the last five holes to salvage a 70 after earlier dropping three shots in a row.