Team USA trio at home atop British Open leaderboard

British Open-Round 1 AP Photos

Team USA trio at home atop British Open leaderboard

Professional

Team USA trio at home atop British Open leaderboard

SOUTHPORT, England – There have been 10 editions of the British Open at Royal Birkdale, and Americans have had a nice run, winning half of them. It’s early days, yes. But on a breezy opening day on the proper English links that marked the start to the 146th Open, there was yet another considerable red, white and blue tint to the proceedings.

Ryder Cup teammates Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka and Matt Kuchar each landed on 5-under 65 to share the opening-round lead.

Spieth gave himself “9s” across the board for his very solid play, and considered his effort to be somewhere in the neighborhood of his top five rounds at major championships.

Koepka holed a bunker shot for eagle at the par-5 17th and shot 65 in his first round back after hoisting the U.S. Open trophy on June 18.

Kuchar, playing late in the day, went out with a blistering 5-under 29 on his first nine and refused to give back any shots coming home in his 65.

Englishman Paul Casey and former Masters winner Charl Schwartzel shot 4-under 66s; a group of six players at 67 included two other Americans, Justin Thomas and Charley Hoffman, as well as England’s Ian Poulter and last week’s Scottish Open winner, Rafa Cabrera Bello.

With rougher weather – high winds and occasional heavy showers –expected to visit Birkdale in the coming days (rain in England? Who knew?), players found great value on Thursday in placing a few shots into the bank.

“I thought today’s round was extremely important, as they all are, but given the forecast coming in, I thought you really needed to be in the red (under par) today,” Spieth said. His 65 was bogey-free.

America’s strong run at Birkdale began in 1961, with Arnold Palmer’s first Open title. Lee Trevino (1971), Johnny Miller (1976), Tom Watson (1983) and Mark O’Meara (1998) also have raised the Claret Jug at Birkdale. All five are enshrined in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Kuchar was playing the Scottish Open at Dundonald on Saturday, standing in the 11th fairway in the afternoon, assessing a shot from 129 yards into a stiff breeze. He asked caddie John Wood to hand him 6-iron from his bag – 6-iron! – and a sudden thought raced through him like a lightning bolt: “I’m glad that I’m over here. I’m glad I’m doing this.”

Dundonald, where he would tie for fourth, proved to be a quality tune-up for Birkdale, where Kucher is making his 13th Open start. He was ready to get after it right from the beginning, playing aggressively, making birdies on four of his first six holes.

The highlight came at the 499-yard, par-4 sixth, a hole Kuchar said he wasn’t looking to birdie. He was just looking to survive it.

A decent drive left him 205 yards to the flagstick, but the wind made the shot play more like 230. He ripped a hybrid to the left edge of the green, 30 feet from the hole, and felt as if he was stealing when the putt vanished for 3.
“The shot in was a great shot; the putt was a little bit lucky,” he said.

After hitting 3-wood, 9-iron to 5 feet at the par-4 ninth, he’d turn in 5-under 29, just one shot off Denis Durnian’s Open record shot at Birkdale in 1983. (Ian Baker-Finch went out in 29 in the final round when he won in 1991.

“You certainly never expect to go out 5 under on the front nine at a British Open, but you take your opportunities where you get them,” he said. “I was presented some really good chances.”

Kuchar’s very first Open appearance came at Birkdale in 1998, where he teed it up as the U.S. Amateur champion. He was 19. Kuchar remembered the first tee shot being incredibly difficult – it doesn’t appear that way to him these days – and recalled playing a practice round with Paul Azinger and Payne Stewart.

At the time, Kuchar, who had just finished his sophomore year, was leaning toward turning pro and leaving Georgia Tech. He had many pros in his ear telling him his game was ready.

Stewart had some other advice: Stay in school.

“You only have four years to be a college kid,” Stewart, who would die in a plane crash 15 months later, told Kuchar. “The PGA Tour is going to be here for the next 100 years. Don’t be a veteran who’s been out here 10, 20 years wishing I had those two years back to be a college kid.”

So Kuchar went back to school, and he had a blast. He turned 39 last month. He owns seven PGA Tour victories, been a regular on Ryder and Presidents Cup teams, and with a solid finish this week, will pass $40 million in career earnings.

He still lacks a major victory, even though he has 14 top-20 finishes in his last 28 major starts. Kuchar was asked if he drew any inspiration from Henrik Stenson, at 40, winning a first major last summer at the Open at Troon, or Sergio Garcia winning the Masters at 37 in April. Late bloomers.

“I think for all of us, I mean, regardless of your age, if you’re in this field you have a dream to win the title,” he said. “I think you go down this entire list of players, I think everyone thinks, if I put the week together, it could be me at the end of the week holding the trophy.

“I know I’ve been around a while, but I also feel like I’m in about the prime of my golfing career. I feel like I certainly have as good a chance as anybody.”

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