Am Lewis opens in historic fashion at St. George's

English golfer Tom Lewis is pictured on the first day of the 140th British Open.

English golfer Tom Lewis is pictured on the first day of the 140th British Open.

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SANDWICH, England – Tom Lewis always wondered why his father, Bryan, wouldn’t let him compete in the weekly pitch-and-putt tournaments at Panshanger Golf Club in Welwyn Garden City, England.

Bryan Lewis had a plan for his son, a plan to help Tom achieve the things that Bryan did not. The elder Lewis, who grew up alongside Nick Faldo, played just a couple European Tour seasons before becoming a club pro. Bryan Lewis knew pitch-and-putt was a fun diversion, but not good for the development of a young talent.

“He said, ‘I can’t tell you my reasons why, but it’s not going to be good for you,’ ” Lewis told Golfweek during a one-on-one interview at last year’s World Amateur Team Championship in Argentina. “He wanted to me to have a good long game. Playing a lot of pitch-and-putt would have made me very short, very narrow, very tight as a player. He knew I could be good when I was older, and he had to build me a long game.

“There’s a lot of kids who were good at pitch-and-putt, but you don’t know any of their names anymore.”

Lewis’ name, long known around the British Isles, became the talk of the golf world on Thursday, for Tom Lewis was the 20-year-old amateur that was leading the Open. Lewis birdied Nos. 14-17 to shoot 65 and tie Thomas Bjorn for the 18-hole lead at Royal St. George’s. Lewis also set the record for low Open round by an amateur.

The old record of 66 was held by Frank Stranahan (1950), Tiger Woods (1996) and Justin Rose (1998).

Lewis is the first amateur to lead the Open Championship after any round since Michael Bonallack, who shared the opening-round lead at Carnoustie in 1968. Mike Reid was the last amateur to lead a major, doing so by three strokes after the first round of the 1976 U.S. Open.

Lewis has long been known for a sterling long game, no surprise considering he used to hit 1,000 balls per day at Gosling Park Driving Range. Bryan Lewis gave lessons at the night-lit range while keeping one eye on his son, who'd practice in a nearby stall. Tom would hit balls off the range’s artificial-turf mats, then help his father lock up. He’d sometimes cut school to squeeze in extra practice before big tournaments.

“Instead of going home after school, I went to the range and hit balls,” Lewis told Golfweek. “From there, I had a good long game. I’ve always relied on my long game to be good.”

Lewis quit school at 16 and plans to turn professional after this year’s Walker Cup.

“I didn’t really enjoy school. I was dyslexic,” Lewis said. “I was happy to leave at 16. Golf was my career. That’s what I needed to do.”

He is expected to be the leading player on this year’s Great Britain & Ireland Walker Cup team. He won the 2009 British Boys at Royal St. George’s.

Tom Watson, who played alongside Lewis on Thursday, credited high-level amateur competition for developing polished players at a younger age. Watson has seen this first-hand. He played with another star amateur, Matteo Manassero, in the 2009 Open. Manassero finished 13th that year.

Lewis is named after Watson, who knew what the hot topic at Royal St. George’s was when he stepped to the interview podium on Thursday. “So, Tom Lewis,” Watson said with a smile.

“(Competition) teaches them how to play under the heat,” Watson said. “Once you know how to play under the heat, you practice for it. You understand it, and you get used to it, and it makes it easier and easier.”

When Watson was an amateur, he competed in just a handful of big events per year. Lewis travels the globe year-round with England’s national team. He’s has had success both near and far. He won this year’s St. Andrews Links Trophy, one of Europe’s leading amateur events, and qualified for the Open with rounds of 63-65 at Rye.

He finished 12th against a strong field at last year’s Australian Open and lost a playoff at another professional event, the New South Wales Open.

The younger Lewis possesses a golf swing devoid of twitch or compensation. That shouldn’t be a surprise. Like Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, Lewis has translated early instruction from a touring-pro father into a flawless, flowing golf swing. Lewis is known for hitting the ball with hardly any curve.

Lewis also receives instruction from one of Europe’s leading teachers, Pete Cowen, whose stable includes Lee Westwood, Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen and Henrik Stenson.

“I’m not really surprised, I’m more impressed,” said Stenson, who played alongside Lewis on Thursday. “If you look at his game, you could see him putting a score like that together. He has no weaknesses and a good head. He definitely has the game for it.

“He’s above-average off the tee, he has a really good short game. He’s a really good putter. He’s the real deal.”

An amateur in the lead may be rare, but he’d hardly be the first to make his mark here. England’s Chris Wood finished fifth as an amateur in the 2008 Open Championship. Rose was fourth at Birkdale in 1998. Manassero also had his impressive finish at Turnberry. Rory McIlroy gained international attention after a first-round 68 at Carnoustie in 2007.

“Shooting 65 is excellent, but to hold off the best players in the world will be even harder,” Lewis said.

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