HOYLAKE, England — The first round of the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool Golf Club had a little bit of everything. Thursday began with 27-year-old Matthew Jordan hitting the opening tee shot at the course he grew up playing and ended with Rory McIlroy getting up and down from an impossible bunker on 18 to stay 5 shots back of the lead.
Only 31 players were able to chart their way through the tough links with an under-par score. One of them was a 6-foot-8 amateur from South Africa who plays at Georgia Tech named Christo Lamprecht. Another was Stewart Cink, a 50-year-old former Open winner who didn’t get to the course until Tuesday.
The eclectic leaderboard was a product of an idyllic day at Hoylake, where neither weather nor wind was a true factor. That will change Friday, which is expected to bring cold and rain that might turn this year’s tournament into a mental battle against both the course and the elements.
Here are the top storylines heading into the second round at Royal Liverpool.
The hometown kid
As Tommy Fleetwood walked up the 18th fairway Thursday, the crowd continued the chorus of cheers he had been hearing all day long. They weren’t just cheering for one of their own. They were cheering for leader of The Open.
“Glad I gave them some good golf to watch,” Fleetwood said after his round.
After growing up 30 miles north of Royal Liverpool in Southport and having played Royal Liverpool countless times, Fleetwood’s game clearly felt comfortable as he fired a first-round 66 to hold a share of the lead at 5 under heading into Friday.
Fleetwood has led or co-led after one round just once in his major career (110 rounds entering today) — that was through 36 holes at the 2017 U.S. Open — but even though he’s been trending in the right direction this season (six top-10s on the PGA Tour), he hasn’t gotten off to strong starts in majors.
“It’s not been my strength recently,” Fleetwood said. “Started tournaments pretty slow, so to get something going today felt really good.”
Despite starting off with four straight pars on Thursday, Fleetwood went on to birdie six of his next 14 holes, including three in a row on the back nine with only one bogey in the process. So far, he’s gaining over seven strokes on the rest of the field and has set himself up to cap off his strong year with a win that would be almost too good to be true: his first-ever major win taking place in his home country, a Claret Jug for the self-proclaimed “Northwest kid” playing near his Northwest home.
“All I want to do is keep working hard, keep playing, and keep putting myself in position,” Fleetwood said. “And obviously it’ll be my turn soon.”
Clark going for a rare double
Wyndham Clark, who captured his first major championship at last month’s U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club, is off to a great start in his attempt to join them. He carded a 3-under 68 in the first round and looked right at home at Royal Liverpool.
After making the turn at even-par 35, Clark picked up birdies on Nos. 10 and 11. Then he ran into trouble on the par-4 14th. He pushed his tee shot far to the right, and his ball bounced off a fan’s iPad. Clark said he ended up with a terrible lie and hit the next shot about two feet. His third shot landed in rough close to the green, and he was able to get up and down for a bogey.
“A little unfortunate off the tee,” Clark said. “Obviously, hitting the guy is never good, but it really went into a bad spot. If I didn’t hit the guy, probably would have been in fine grass and I would have been able to hit it up near the green.
“Yeah, getting up-and-down and making about a 20-footer really is a round saver because you make double there, you probably still birdie the next one, maybe, maybe not. But it seems like it takes away the momentum, and making that putt made me feel like I regained the momentum.”
Asked if the fan’s iPad was OK, Clark said, “Well, I don’t care now. It screwed me up.”
The fiery finish at Hoylake will only get tougher
The most compelling tee shots of this year’s Open might be the last two. Through one day at Royal Liverpool, the 17th and 18th holes have already become the topic of much drama and fanfare. Lucas Herbert was leading the tournament for a moment during the morning wave before stepping up to the 17th hole and pingponging the ball from bunker to bunker for a triple bogey.
“I think if you hit a half-decent shot and miss the fairway, miss the green by a couple yards, you’re in the back of the bunker, you’re making double, you lose The Open, it’s going to sting. There’s no doubt about that,” said Matt Fitzpatrick, who made birdie on a Thursday with light wind. “But at the same time, it’s the same for everyone. It’s going to require a good shot on there. It is maybe a little bit too penal on that right side, but it is the same for everyone.”
If Thursday was a pretty benign showing for the new hole at Hoylake, most players expect it to get much tougher as the wind and weather pick up throughout the week.
“It could become carnage,” Jordan Spieth, who made a par on 17 Thursday, said.
Fowler was 2 under heading into the last hole of his round and had just smashed a 300-yard drive down the center of the fairway. His first approach flared right and straight into the internal out-of-bounds area that runs alongside the right side of the fairway.
After taking a penalty drop, Fowler tried it again and dumped it in a similar spot. By the time he putted out, Fowler had to card a triple-bogey 8 that dropped him back to 1 over. It’s just the second time Fowler has ever tripled the final hole of any round in his major career.
Scott’s drive on 18 peeled off his line and well into the out-of-bounds zone. The Australian overcorrected on his next shot, pulling his second drive left instead and over the fan fence. The ball actually hit a fan on the head, which made Scott take off his glove, sign it and give it to the fan before eventually making double bogey and, like Fowler, ending up at 1 over.
The two holes will be fascinating to watch all week. On 17, any players who dump it in a bunker will have to pray for a good lie. As several players like Tony Finau showed Thursday, a ball that finds the sand-filled pits could end up next to the face of the bunker, leading to some creative play and a dropped shot, if not two.
More pot bunker fun pic.twitter.com/mtXS8mbmrt
— The Fried Egg (@the_fried_egg) July 20, 2023
“You stand on every tee and almost every bunker is in play,” Shane Lowry said. “You’re kind of trying to figure out what to do because if you lay back, you’re just playing for pars. If you take it on and hit a bad shot and end up in a bunker, it’s a penalty shot basically.”
As far as 18 goes, watching more players hit it out of bounds might compel whoever steps up to the tee box on the weekend with the lead to think more about the worst-case scenario than not, especially if the wind and rain pick up. As Spieth said Thursday, the crosswinds on the course, however light or strong they are, and the bunkers below, are what give the golf course its teeth.
“I think the toughest part about the course is the crosswinds off the tee and how important it is to hit the fairways,” Spieth said. “It’s just amazing how much the wind, heaviness of the wind affects the ball here in crosswinds.”
Unlike 18 at Los Angeles Country Club during the U.S. Open, this one will take a good shot coming down the stretch. If 17 doesn’t cost someone The Open, perhaps 18 will.