LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England — Adam Scott had a chance at history.
He gladly settled for tying a course record.
Scott equaled the lowest British Open score at Royal Lytham &St. Annes, taking advantage of prime conditions to rip off eight birdies on the way to a 6-under 64 in the opening round Thursday.
He wasn’t the only one going low. Paul Lawrie, Zach Johnson and Nicolas Colsaerts each shot 65. Brandt Snedeker turned in a 66 as the light faded. Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy were among a logjam at 67.
“It’s pretty benign out there,” Woods said of the conditions, which were especially kind for the morning players.
Scott, a 31-year-old Australian, bounced back from an early bogey with a dazzling display — his drives accurate, his irons precise, his long putter reliable. When he arrived at the 17th hole, his score was at 7 under, putting him in position to tie the record for lowest score in the Open or any other major (63), or even break the hallowed mark with one more birdie.
Scott settled for par at the 17th, then took a bogey on the final hole after an errant tee shot into the thick rough. Still, he went to the clubhouse having tied the 64 that Tom Lehman shot at Royal Lytham in 1996.
“I’m very pleased with the start,” said Scott, who had never shot better than 68 in 12 previous Opens. “It’s nice just to take advantage of the calm conditions today. It was surprising but very pleasing to go out and play some solid golf. It’s what I haven’t done in the first rounds of the majors this year, and that was my goal here, starting the week, was to play today like it was Sunday and there was no tomorrow.
“I did a good job of that, and now I’ve got my work cut out for me the next couple of days to keep myself in a similar kind of position.”
Woods spent some time atop the leaderboard, a once-familiar sight at the major championships. He played the first 14 holes at 4 under, finally stumbling after he sprayed his tee shot at the 15th into the thick rough. He needed two whacks to get out and wound up taking bogey.
Still, he finished within three shots of the leader, positioning himself nicely for another run at his 15th major championship. Woods is looking to break a drought in the biggest tournaments that dates back to the 2008 U.S. Open, before he was slowed by injuries and his personal life crumbled.
He certainly had a swagger in his step and showed plenty of emotion, strolling the grounds like he owned the place, mixed in with some anguished looks every time a shot didn’t go exactly where he wanted. Woods played it safe, largely sticking with irons off the tee to avoid the tall, thick rough and devilish bunkers.
He just left a few putts short.
“I really hit it well,” Woods said. “I was very close to making a few more putts. Every ball was starting right on my line. I was very pleased with that. I’ve just got to hit the putts a little harder.”
The morning conditions couldn’t have been any better for going low. An early sprinkle gave way to dry weather, the sun even making an appearance through the low-hanging clouds. There was hardly any breeze blowing in off the nearby Irish Sea, the flags atop the 18th grandstand barely rippling.
Showing excellent control off the tee — a must at Royal Lytham — Woods got rolling with a birdie at the opening par-3, rapped in another at the fourth, then grabbed the outright lead with a 20-footer at No. 6. He grimaced after each of his first two shots at the par-5 seventh, but was still in good shape, just short of a greenside pot bunker. He deftly chipped right up next to the flag and tapped in for another birdie.
A host of major champions took advantage of a course ripe for the taking. Lawrie, who won a British Open best remembered for Jean Van de Velde’s historic meltdown on the 72nd hole, was perhaps the biggest surprise. Masters winners Johnson and Bubba Watson (67) were right in the thick of things. So too were U.S. Open champions McIlroy, Ernie Els and Graeme McDowell, all at 67.
Watson, whose gambling style seemed ill-suited for a British Open, was downright steady — heck, even a little boring. He rapped in birdies when he had the chance and generally stayed out of trouble.
Colsaerts, a big hitter from Belgium, might’ve had the best round of the day, considering the breeze picked up and the rain returned in the afternoon. He holed out for an eagle at No. 2 and was 2 under on the tougher back side.
McIlroy wasn’t too shabby, either. He rallied for birdies on two of the last three holes after an errant tee shot at the 15th struck a spectator in the back of the head, the ball ricocheting out of bounds behind a hamburger stand. He had to tee off again and took a double-bogey.
“If he could have headed it the other way, it would have been better,” McIlroy quipped.
The 16-year-old fan, who was attending his first British Open, had his head bandaged up and appeared a bit woozy. Fortunately, he wasn’t seriously injured. McIlroy came over to check on his condition and give him an autographed glove that said “Sorry” and included a smiley face.
“The most important thing was that he was OK,” McIlroy said. “I would have felt terrible if it was worse than it was.”
Not everyone had a smiley face. Defending Open champion Darren Clarke struggled to a 76. Lee Westwood, the English favorite and best player without a major title, got off to a sluggish start with a 73.
“I’ve got to go and practice,” Clarke said. “I’m basically disgusted with myself for shooting 6 over.”
World No. 1 Luke Donald, who’s never been much of a factor in the majors, got off to a respectable start with a 70. But Phil Mickelson, the runner-up a year ago at Royal St. George’s, made a total mess of things at the far end of the course. He took double-bogey at the seventh after needing two swings to escape the punishing rough, and he bogeyed the eighth after hitting into a bunker, then popping out into another deep patch of rough, forcing him to take an unplayable lie. He finished with an ugly 73.
Royal Lytham is the shortest course on the Open rotation over the last decade, and it’s on the smallest piece of property, tucked a mile or so away from the Irish Sea and surrounded by homes and a railway. Accuracy off the tee was at a premium on a layout that featured 206 bunkers, and the persistent rain left the rough even thicker than usual.
The list of Open champions at Royal Lytham is impressive — David Duval and Lehman, both formerly No. 1 in the world, won the last two times. The rest of the winners showcased in the brick clubhouse are in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Then again, trying to figure out the next winner isn’t that simple.
Besides the massive amount of bunkers, the number getting the most attention at this major is 15 — the number of players who have won the last 15 majors. An even greater sign of parity is that the last nine major champions had never won a major before.
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