Impressive Zach Johnson takes charge in testing conditions in British Open

American holds one-shot lead over Rafael Cabrera-Bella and Mark O’Meara

 Miguel Angel Jimenez of Spain hits out of a bunker on the 18th  during the first round of the 142nd Open Championship at Muirfield. (Photograph:  Rob Carr/Getty Images

Miguel Angel Jimenez of Spain hits out of a bunker on the 18th during the first round of the 142nd Open Championship at Muirfield. (Photograph: Rob Carr/Getty Images


The examination, even without any meaningful wind, was an onerous one as the first piece of the jigsaw fell into place here in this 142nd edition of the British Open over a brown-tinted links at the home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers; and, if some of the wailing emanating from golfers who should know better could have been confused for the sounds of the gannets out on Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth, the actual scoring spoke loudest of all.

When the dust had settled on a long day’s golf, American Zach Johnson – who had fine-tuned for this test by contending in the John Deere Classic where he lost out in a play-off to teenager Jordan Spieth – was lone atop the leaderboard. His opening 66, five-under-par, providing a one-shot lead over Spain’s Rafael Cabrera-Bella and 1998 champion Mark O’Meara.

The mix of young and old was an intoxicating one, demonstrating that guile and power – in whatever hands – can find the answer to whatever test is presented. Yesterday, much of that test focused on greens that grew more treacherous as the round went on. The greens were double cut at 4.00am in the morning and single-rolled to provide a running speed of 11 feet on the stimpmeter but, in truth, were faster than that in the afternoon with some players comparing the surfaces to ice rinks and glass and such like.

Peter Dawson, the chief executive of the R&A, defended the course. “We set up the golf course to test the players’ course management strategy, as much as anything . . . we’re still very satisfied with the course. It’s playable; but, indeed, very testing.”

As you’d expect for a British Open. And comparisons that some players made to Shinnecock Hills and the 2004 US Open were well off the mark.

As Australian Geoff Ogilvy, one of those who had a later tee-time and encountered greens at their slickest, observed: “It’s not that crazy. It’s just what we’re used to on a links . . . there’s nothing silly there, just really fast.”

Graeme McDowell also backed the set-up.”They’re fair. They just get so glassy and crispy around the holes. That’s the only way you can describe it. You literally can see 300 footprints around the hole from all the players and caddies and whatnot that have been out there, (but) the surfaces are fine. I couldn’t single out a pin that I thought was unfair.”

US Masters champion Adam Scott, who opened with a level par 71, agreed: “It’s testing, you’ve got to be really careful.”

In truth, the differentials in the scoring indicated how some coped, whilst others struggled.

Justin Rose, the recently crowned US Open champion, laboured to a 75. Rory McIlroy, the world number two, signed for a 79, whilst former world number one Luke Donald looked down at an 80 on his card when all the numbers were added up. It made for some reassessment of their respective quests for the title.

Tiger Woods, though, showed his own measure of resolve. Having turned in 37, Woods showed much of his old flair on the homeward run with four birdies and a lone bogey in shooting a 69 that left him alongside, amongst others, Phil Mickelson and young Spieth.

“The golf course just kept drying out. And it was so hard to get the ball close, even (to) lag putt and try to get the ball the right speed. It was very difficult. I tried to keep the ball in front of me as best I could,” explained Woods of a game plan that yielded its reward. Of course, 10 one-putts also helped and attested to his diligence with the blade in hand.

Still, nobody manoeuvred around the course better than past-Masters champion Johnson, who showed no ill-effect – at least not just yet – from his disappointment in losing out in a play-off to Spieth on Sunday.

Of bouncing back from that upset, Johnson said: “This game demands resilience. It demands resilience on the golf course, each round, each hole, and day to day. But it also demands it week to week. That just comes with experience. That certainly comes with embracing what’s happened and then also throwing it behind you and plodding along to the future.”

In putting those words into action, Johnson – who had a top-10 finish behind Ernie Els in Lytham last year – emerged as the first round leader. His policy of traditionally playing on the US Tour the week before the British Open and getting a charter flight over is one that has served him well in the past, even if he hasn’t quite managed to get the job finished.

“I know that patience and perseverance are the two elements required to get over that finish line, so that’s going to be my approach,” said Johnson, who is sharing a house with Stewart Cink, the 2009 champion. “Anytime you see someone hoist the Claret Jug, it’s because they’ve obviously fought the elements properly – but they’ve putted darned good, too!”