When the average golf fan thinks about The Open Championships, tough scoring conditions come to mind. But while sideways rain and wind that can nearly knock you over might show up on Friday, the opening round conditions made Royal Birkdale, a course that saw Padraig Harrington's 3-over as the winning score in 2008, a course where birdies were not only possible but necessary to keep pace with the leaders.
The morning groups did have some rain to deal with, but by the end of a sunny day in Southport there were 39 players under par on the leaderboard. There were highlights at every turn: Matt Kuchar's 29 on the front nine, Charley Hoffman's eagle on the first hole (the first at Birkdale since 1983) and Jason Day's Nike high-tops, which drew plenty of attention from the fashion police.
The crowded leaderboard, with established stars and a few surprises, has set the stage for an awesome edition of 146th Open Championship. Here's the way the top of the leaderboard looks heading into Friday.
T1. Jordan Spieth (-5): Few things bring buzz to a major championship like having one of the game's superstars rolling in birdies early on Thursday. Spieth's bogey-free 65 showcased a confidence that bodes well for his chances to add a third major championship (and first Open title) to his trophy case. There were mishits off the tee, for sure, but he recovered about as well as anyone else in the field.
T1. Brooks Koepka (-5): Time off has not done much to shake Koepka's game. He hasn't played competitively since winning the U.S. Open last month, but once Koepka got into a groove around the turn a run he got more birdie opportunities and took advantage, with a run of four birdies in six holes and just 21 putts for the round. There was a bogey at 16 that set him back, but it was followed by the shot of the day, a hole-out from the sand on the par-5 17th.
T1. Matt Kuchar (-5): After going out with a 29, it's easy to point at some of the missed scoring opportunities on the second nine (No. 15 and No. 17 in particular), but our lust for a 63 should not cloud the earned praise for Kuchar's round. The Open has been a major that favors experience in recent years (Rory's win in 2014 being an exception), and with a leaderboard that includes a couple young stars it wouldn't be surprising to see some fans rooting for the 39-year old to win his first major -- at least stateside, the two Englishmen below are far more likely to win over the gallery at Royal Birkdale.
T4. Paul Casey (-4): It was a really strong performance from Casey. He hit 15-of-18 greens in regulation and seemed dialed from tee-to-green, finally getting some birdie putts to drop near the end of his round to finish one stroke behind the leaders. Nine years ago, Casey finished T7 at the Open, and that week at Royal Birkdale started with a 78. Tomorrow will not only be a great chance to keep himself in title contention but also Casey's 40th birthday.
T4. Charl Schwartzel (-4): Bogeys on No. 6 and No. 7 didn't shake Schwartzel as he closed out the afternoon with five birdies and six pars over his final 11 holes. The 2011 Masters champion has three top-10 finishes in the last 12 majors and while the grandstands had mostly cleared out by the time he got hot fans who show up early will find the South African in top form ready to make a run at the title.
T6. Rafael Cabrera-Bello (-3): Like Schwartzel, Cabrera-Bello made his charge up the leaderboard late in the day on Thursday. The scoring conditions were excellent, and Cabrera-Bello just didn't have many bad shots until missing off the tee on the 18th, causing him to drop a shot off the pace just before signing his scorecard in the clubhouse.
T6. Ian Poulter (-3): Another old-timer looking for his first major, Poulter not only has England on his back but golf fans across the globe after battling to keep his PGA Tour status earlier this year. Poulter's been playing great golf recently and not only wants to keep it going but finish the job after missing an opportunity to notch a European Tour win at the Scottish Open last week.
T6. Justin Thomas (-3): An eagle on 17 ensured that Justin Thomas had a score to back up one of the best outfits of the day. The lack of inclement weather allowed him to load up off the tee while others stayed back, and outside of one bad hole (the par-3 14th) played some of his best golf on the second nine.
T6. Richard Bland (-3): With only one professional win (2001) at the age of 44, Bland is a tough pick to go and win this thing, but you have to be happy for the Englishman after a birdie-birdie-birdie finish has him just two strokes off the lead going into Friday. If he can keep this going, he's nearly guaranteed the best Open Championship finish of his career in his second-ever start (missed cut in 1998).
T6. Austin Connelly (-3): The 20-year-old Canadian was white-hot on Thursday, firing as many birdies (6) as anyone else in the field. Only a double-bogey on 16 (and another bogey earlier in the round on 6) kept him from having or sharing the lead.
T6. Charley Hoffman (-3): The best Open Championship round of Hoffman's career started strong with a hole-out eagle on the first hole.
It was one heck of a way to play one of the toughest holes on the course, but it was on the second nine -- which was statistically much more friendly -- where things started to rattle a little bit. Hoffman has earned a reputation as one to make noise on Thursday, and he was tied with the leaders at 5-under before bogeys at 16 and 17.
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