He said he was over the disappointment of the U.S. Open, and then he proved its.
South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen, 2010 Open Champion, fired a sparkling, blemish-free, 6-under 64 to lead the first round of the 2021 Open Championship at Royal St. George’s Golf Club. Americans Jordan Spieth (the 2017 Open Champion at Royal Birkdale) and Brian Harman are one shot back at 5 under.
“In my mind, the perfect round I could have played,” Oosthuizen said succinctly. “I didn't make many mistakes. When I had good opportunities for birdie, I made the putts. So, yeah, just a very good solid round.”
Though Oosthuizen’s opening with seven pars may have looked bland on the scorecard, they were anything but. He proved once again his razor-sharp links short game skills and brought his creative shotmaking to the forefront.
“Number one, on this golf course it's hit the fairway,” Oosthuizen noted. “You're not going to be able to do much from the rough here or the fairway bunkers. Coming into this week driving the ball good is key.”
But Oosthuizen did anything but. From the tee boxes in Southport, he seemingly drove the ball to Ramsgate, Deal and Reculver. You’d have thought he was playing Prince’s Club, not Royal St. George’s. Oosthuizen hit only 6 of 14 fairways, well below the field average of 58 percent, but he still managed to hit 14 greens, well above the field average of 11. His short game was sterling. On the long, serpentine par-4 fourth hole, he played a pitch shot with his back to the pin, caroming the ball off a mound and then filtering the ball to the hole to save a brilliant par one of Royal St. George’s most demanding holes.
Oosthuizen then rattled off three consecutive birdies at 8, 9 and 10, then three more in a four-hole span at Nos. 13, 14 and 16 to vault past Spieth and Harmon, who finished just a few minutes in front of him.
The South African enters the tournament hoping to finally break through for that elusive second major championship. He’s had eight second-place finishes in majors since winning the 2010 Open at St. Andrews, including a gutting pair of runner-ups at this year's PGA Championship and U.S. Open, both of which he led late before ultimately fading, leaving Phil Mickelson and Spain’s Jon Rahm to claim the respective trophies. Still, Oosthuizen was his same unfazed, cheerful self.
“I’m just doing the same old thing. Trying to prepare the same way for -- the same way I would do any other major championship. You do feel a little disappointed afterwards, but I was outplayed by -- with both of those majors this year, and just fell short. I can just do what I do and try and just go one better when I get to the next major,” he asserted earnestly.
Meanwhile, Spieth, a three-time major champion, is hoping to rekindle the glory his triumph at Birkdale just four short years ago to us, but what must feel like an eternity to the 27-year-old Texan. Spieth bogeyed the long par-3 third hole to fall over par early, but then ignited the round with four straight birdies from Nos. 5 through 8. He added back-to-back birdies at the difficult stretch of 15 and 16. A 26-foot putt from off the fringe on the fifth hole was the fuse, and from then his laser-like iron play took over. Spieth, like Oosthuizen, hit 14 greens in regulation and need only 27 putts over Sandwich’s devilishly curvaceous greens.
“The path that I'm on, and where I've been before in the game, I feel really good about my chances going forward, as good as they have been historically,” Spieth explained.
“I feel like I've been trending the right way and certainly had a chance this year already at Augusta. Made some mistakes in the first round and second round that I shouldn't have made that I very well could have won that golf tournament this year. I took a couple steps back on the weekend at Colonial through the U.S. Open, and I know what it was now and tried to put in some good work over the last few weeks to get back to the same and even forward. I’m already progressing.”
Other major champions in the mix right now include 2009 Open Champion Stewart Cink and 2012 U.S. Open Champion Webb Simpson at 4 under; Englishmen Danny Willett and Justin Rose and American Collin Morakawa at 3 under; and Sergio Garcia and Francesco Molinari are four shots back at 2 under.
“It's a gnarly golf course; it's playing well this year,” surmised Rose, whose clean card – three birdies, no bogeys – has him started well on his quest to become the first Englishmen to claim the Claret Jug since Nick Faldo in 1992.
"It's playing fair, but there was definitely a nice breeze to challenge us all day long. So if you did hit a loose ball off the tee or you mis-clubbed with an iron, you were going to put yourself under pressure, and I absorbed a lot of that sort of pressure today."
Rose birdied the first, 10th and 13th holes, then scraped pars the rest of the way, with long 50- to 60-foot two putts across the hollows, mounds and chicanes of St. George’s greens.
“There was a lean period of time where just basically it was just Westy flying the flag for us for the sort of late '90s, early 2000s, and then a few of us began to sort of develop through. Right now I think it's probably as strong a chance as we've had, maybe even ever,” Rose asserted firmly.
“Tommy, Paul, Casey, Poults, Matt Fitzpatrick, obviously myself….We've all grown up playing lots of links golf to be honest with you, and yeah, it should be a style of golf that we all relish. Hopefully Royal St George's with the St George's cross is kind of a lucky omen this week.”