- The Washington Times - Friday, July 21, 2006

HOYLAKE, England — Golf’s glitterati put a royal whipping on Hoylake.

In the days leading up to this week’s 135th British Open, golf insiders wondered whether Hoylake could stand up to modern players and equipment in its first major outing since 1967. When overnight rains and only a nominal breeze left the 7,258-yard, par-72 links defenseless yesterday, the field responded with a resounding answer in the negative.

Paced by Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell (66), a pack of 67 players broke par at Hoylake yesterday, making it the most historic red-number rout in the first round of a major since the PGA Tour began keeping statistics in 1956.

“The game was on out there today,” said Ernie Els (68), one of 19 players clustered at 4-under or better. “If it stays soft, there will be a couple of 64s out there.”

The heat wave that had roasted Britain for the better part of a month and turned Hoylake into a wheat-colored tarmac broke Wednesday night with a wave of thunderstorms. The rain completely took away the old girl’s fire, and the field answered with its own. Almost any player who could remain upright for five hours yesterday was rewarded with a sub-par score. And virtually all of the game’s principals cashed in on the facile proposition.

World No. 1 Tiger Woods responded from his missed cut hiccup at last month’s U.S. Open with an opening 67.

“You can make birdies out there and obviously guys are doing it,” said the 10-time major champion and two-time British Open winner, who closed his round with an eagle to vault to the top of the board. “The rain last night slowed it down a little bit, but I don’t think the R&A; will put any more water on it, considering there’s so many guys under par.”

World No. 2 Phil Mickelson, who enters the Open on a torrid 1-1-2 run in the last three majors, carded a no-sweat 69.

“The flags weren’t moving at all when we came out here,” said Mickelson, of the windless morning conditions. “The course was playing as nice as it could.”

And the rest of the game’s Elite Eight piled on, as Vijay Singh (70), Retief Goosen (70), Jim Furyk (68), Adam Scott (68), Geoff Ogilvy (71) and Els all splashed red on the first British Open track in modern history to feature four par-5s. Those par-5s yielded an astounding total of 21 eagles yesterday, as most of the field did the bulk of its scoring on Hoylake’s reachable 5s.

Nobody handled the course more adeptly than McDowell, who established a new course record during a bogey-free cruise that included 16 greens hit in regulation, an astounding number on a links course. McDowell’s score broke the Hoylake record of 67 held jointly by 1967 Open champion Roberto de Vicenzo and the legendary Gary Player, both of whom scratched their marks in the third round of the ‘67 championship.

In the midst of an atrocious season in which he has split time between both sides of the Atlantic while recording just one top-10 finish (tied for eighth at the British Masters), the 26-year-old McDowell drew inspiration for his opener from a pair of odd sources.

The first was a local lad at a pub on Wednesday night who approached McDowell in the midst of his cups and explained that he had observed him laying the club off (dropping his knuckles parallel to the ground) at the top of his swing.

“It’s something I’ve been working on anyway, so fair play to him for noticing. He knew his stuff,” chuckled McDowell, who was the top-ranked collegian in the game during his one year at UAB (2001) and boasts two victories in Europe (2002 Volvo Scandinavian Masters and 2004 Italian Open).

The other bit of spring in McDowell’s step yesterday was supplied by history. The only Irishman ever to win the Open (Fred Daly) accomplished the feat at Hoylake in 1947. And McDowell couldn’t help but think of his countryman as he walked up the 18th fairway with his name at the top of the leader board.

“I definitely thought about it,” McDowell said. “The brain doesn’t really experience leading an Open very often, and it conjures up all kinds of nice scenarios. The thought of Fred, obviously the Irish winner of a major, with the Open back at Hoylake and a guy from Portrush leading — there were lots of parallels. It’s nice to think thoughts like that.”

Desperate to see Europe crown its first major champion since the 1999 British Open (Paul Lawrie), the Brits probably would even root on a Irishman this week at Hoylake. But with the game’s entire upper echelon on his heels, even McDowell knows it’s too early for such thoughts.

“Obviously, I’ve got to take myself back to the present very quickly,” McDowell said. “I’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Thursday leads are always extraordinarily fragile, especially on major layouts swarming with stars and bleeding birdies.

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