News & Opinion

Birkdale levels playing field for Open hopefuls

SOUTHPORT, England – As the names of differing ages, games and nationalities climb the leaderboard Thursday at Royal Birkdale Golf Club, it becomes clear why the British Open is the most enjoyable major championship to watch.

It truly is an “open” major, in which almost everyone has a reasonable chance to win, mainly because links golf is the great equalizer. Performance during the season or leading into this week may not mean as much when play starts at a seaside links.

Among the 25 players at 2 under or better, Richard Bland, a 44-year-old journeyman from England, sits next to Justin Thomas, 24, of the U.S., in a tie for sixth at 3 under.

Bland never has won on the European Tour and is 145th in the Official World Golf Ranking. Thomas owns four victories in his short PGA Tour career, including three this season, and has climbed to 13th in the world. 

Ernie Els won four major titles, including Claret Jugs from Muirfield and Royal Lytham and St. Annes, but he hasn’t claimed one of golf’s biggest prizes since 2012. Now 47, Els stands 417th in the world but finds himself tied with world No. 2 Hideki Matsuyama and No. 9 Alex Noren, among others, at 2 under.

“You stand on the range there, you see that TrackMan, guys are hitting it 320 [yards],” Els said after his 52nd round under par in the British Open. “I'm hitting it 280, and they're hitting it 320. But the golf course equalizes everybody. You can't be hitting 320 drives each and every hole. So, you don't have to play perfect golf around here. You can hit shots and plot [along].”

Wales’ Stuart Manley debuted at an Open during the most difficult weather conditions: early morning, when the wind and rain were fiercest, before sunshine and calmer weather prevailed. Manley borrowed from Els’ game plan and shot 68. 

“I kind of didn't take so many risks. I tried plotting my way around,” an under-the-weather Manley said. “I didn't feel like I had my game with me today. I didn't warm up too well. I had too many layers – waterproof from the rain. I didn't get any rhythm on the range, although yesterday was fantastic. I thought the warmup would have gone better this morning, but it didn't. So, I thought, OK, this is the game I've got. I'm just going to have to plot my way around, and it seemed to work. I took out a lot of the fairway bunkers, and I kind of aimed at the front edge of the green every time, and just tried to make par every hole, really.”

More plotting and a controlled ball flight likely will be required for Friday’s second round as the forecast calls for nasty weather. 

“It's all about managing your trajectory and all about controlling the golf ball,” said Darren Clarke, the 2011 Open champion. “If you can do that on a links course, you'll do very well. But you’ve got to make putts.”

Co-leaders Jordan Spieth, 23, and Brooks Koepka, 27, join Matt Kuchar, 39, atop the leaderboard at 5-under 65 (scores: http://bit.ly/1j3khNH).

“Regardless of your age, if you're in this field you have a dream to win the title,” said Kuchar, who owns only one top 10 and six missed cuts in 12 British Open appearances. “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.”

And why not? Royal Birkdale can be the great equalizer.

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli