GULLANE, Scotland (Reuters) - Zach Johnson’s putter was as red-hot as the weather at Muirfield on Thursday, the 2007 U.S. Masters champion scorching his way to a five-under-par 66 to set a blistering pace in the British Open first round.
While the American was making an electric start to the third major of the year, world number two Rory McIlroy crashed to an eight-over 79 and European Ryder Cup team mate Luke Donald ballooned to an 80.
Tiger Woods has developed something of a penchant for errant first-hole tee shots and the world number one did it again on the east coast of Scotland, snap-hooking his three-wood deep into the rough to open with a bogey.
The 14-times major champion bounced back, however, with four birdies on the back nine leaving him lurking ominously on 69.
Mark O‘Meara flew a surprise flag for the ‘golden oldies’, the 56-year-old American tucking into joint second place with Spaniard Rafael Cabrera-Bello on 67.
One stroke further adrift were Americans Dustin Johnson, Brandt Snedeker and Tom Lehman, Miguel Angel Jimenez of Spain and India’s Shiv Kapur.
Most of the players found the knee-high rough difficult to cope with and scores were high on the banks of the Firth of Forth.
The parched and dry links course also made it tough for the 156-strong field to control the ball on the fairways and the greens but most of the complaints were about the fiendish pin positions laid out by the Royal & Ancient organizers.
Zach Johnson proved to be the best of the bunch, waving his putter like a magic wand to birdie the third, sixth and seventh and eagle the long fifth.
The 37-year-old made further inroads on par at the 12th before dropping his only stroke of the day at the 14th.
“Any time you shoot under par in an Open or a major, for that matter, you have to be putting at least decent and I putted great,” Johnson told reporters as temperatures rose to a balmy 80 degrees in East Lothian.
“This is the Open and you expect difficult conditions but a couple of the pin positions were pretty tough.”
Johnson was pipped for the John Deere Classic title in Illinois on Sunday when he lost in a playoff to 19-year-old compatriot Jordan Speith.
“I felt great about last week, I’ll be honest with you,” he said. “What I’ve embraced is the fact I‘m playing great and I can put that into play and I‘m certainly confident in what I‘m doing.”
O‘Meara matched Johnson’s start with a barnstorming run of four birdies in six holes. Another birdie at the ninth took him to the turn in 31 before he faltered with a bogey at the 10th.
The veteran criticized the way some of his fellow competitors complained about the flag positions.
”I‘m not a big fan of guys who whine a lot,“ said 1998 British Open champion O‘Meara. ”I don’t see any reason for it.
“Especially today’s generation, they’re so talented. The greens got pretty quick for an Open championship but I didn’t see it being unfair.”
Early starter Ian Poulter led the carping after his 72.
“Unfortunately the guys this afternoon will struggle with a few pin positions,” the Briton said on his Twitter feed. “8th hole is a joke, 18th needs a windmill & clown face.”
The first round was no laughing matter for McIlroy who said he suffered a “brain dead” moment when he putted the ball into a bunker at the 15th and felt he was generally “unconscious” all the way round.
The Northern Irishman, whose form has deserted him since he changed clubs at the start of the year after signing a mega-bucks deal with Nike, sported a look of sad resignation when he walked off the 18th green.
”Sometimes I feel like I‘m walking around out there and I‘m unconscious,“ said McIlroy. ”It’s nothing to do with technique, it’s all mental.
“I feel like I’ve been walking around out there like that for the last couple of months. It’s a very alien feeling, something I’ve never felt before.”
U.S. Open champion Justin Rose slipped to a 75 and title holder Ernie Els could only manage a 74 that included a double-bogey six at the 16th where he needed three strokes to get out of a greenside bunker.
Woods, bidding to end a five-year wait for a major triumph, also said conditions were testing.
“There wasn’t a lot of talking out there because we’re trying to grind it out. It’s one of those courses where it just got so difficult,” said the American.
“Some of these putts today, I mean, I putted the ball off the green and it really wasn’t that bad a putt. Anything that goes four feet by, it was gone.”
Editing by Ed Osmond