Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Johnson out in front

Miguel Angel Jimenez made an excellent start at Muirfield

Former Masters champion Zach Johnson today began the 142nd Open Championship in the same imperious style as he did the 141st, but there was no let up in the misery for world number two Rory McIlroy.

While Ian Poulter labelled some of the pin positions at a parched Muirfield as "a joke", McIlroy blamed himself for a "brain dead" round of 79 which left him 13 shots off Johnson's lead.

Johnson carded a five-under 66 to lead by one from Spain's Rafael Cabrera-Bello and 1998 champion Mark O'Meara, with 1996 winner Tom Lehman a shot behind alongside fellow Americans Dustin Johnson and Brandt Snedeker, Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez and India's Shiv Kapur. Kapur held the lead when he raced to the turn in 30, but dropped three shots on the back nine.

World number one Tiger Woods, seeking the 15th major title of his career and a first since 2008, was ominously poised on two under, but US Open champion Justin Rose's hopes of back-to-back majors suffered a blow with a 75 and defending champion Ernie Els was only one shot better off.

Johnson, who opened with a 65 at Lytham 12 months ago and eventually finished ninth, stormed to the turn in 31 thanks to an eagle and three birdies and reached six under before his only bogey of the day on the 14th.

The 37-year-old was beaten in a five-hole play-off by 19-year-old Jordan Spieth at the John Deere Classic on Sunday and said: "I think this game demands resilience. If anything, what I've embraced from last week is the fact that I'm playing great and I can put that into play, and I'm certainly somewhat confident in what I'm doing, confident in my routines."

The same could certainly not be said of McIlroy, who was disconsolate after a round which featured two double bogeys in a back nine of 42, including putting off the green into a bunker on the 15th.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm walking around out there and I'm unconscious. I just need to try to think more," the 24-year-old said. "I'm trying to focus and trying to concentrate. But I can't really fathom it at the minute and it's hard to stand up here and tell you guys what's really wrong.

"Going left of the pin on 12, when I had no right to be going anywhere near that pin, that's just thoughtless. It's just so brain dead. Seriously, I feel like I've been walking around out there like that for the last couple of months. I'm trying to get out of it. I just don't quite know why."

Poulter felt he knew the reason behind his round of 72, the Ryder Cup star carding four bogeys and a birdie in his last five holes and then taking to Twitter to say: "Unfortunately the guys this afternoon will struggle with a few pin positions. 8th hole is a joke, 18th needs a windmill & clown face."

Phil Mickelson, winner of the Scottish Open on Sunday, three-putted the 18th in his 69 and called for the R&A to "let go of their ego" when it comes to setting up the course on Friday.

R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said: "Ian Poulter I know bogeyed three of the last four holes, hardly likely to be in the best of moods, but Ian's comments will be noted and we'll have a look at it. We are still very satisfied that the course is playable but very testing. (It is) far from unplayable."

Els, also the winner the last time the Open was staged here in 2002, did not speak to waiting reporters after a 74 which featured a triple-bogey six on the 16th - the same hole which cost him a double bogey in the final round 11 years ago and almost cost him the title.

The South African left his second shot in a greenside bunker and then saw his next just escape the hazard but then roll back into the sand.

Playing partner Rose, seeking to become only the seventh man in history after Bobby Jones (twice), Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and Tiger Woods to win the US Open and Open Championship in the same year, could only manage one birdie in his round - and that was on the 17th.

"I have done my best to come here and be as prepared as possible, it was just a round that did not go my way," he said. "I am happy to have got it out of the way and I can get on with tomorrow and the rest of the year."

Woods looked set for a long afternoon when he hooked his opening tee shot off a tree and into rough so deep that he played a provisional ball, but after the original was found he took a penalty drop and salvaged a bogey after finding a greenside bunker with his third.

Still one over at the turn, birdies at the 10th, 11th and 13th took him to two under par and a bogey on the 14th - where he putted from the front of the green off the back - was cancelled out by a two-putt birdie on the 17th.

Woods said: "It was tough. The golf course progressively got more dried out and more difficult as we played and I'm very pleased to shoot anything even par or better.

"I could see how guys were complaining about it. If there's more moisture on the greens, then that's fine. But as the golf course dried out it got quick. Some of these putts today, I mean I putted the ball off the green today. And it really wasn't that bad a putt. Anything that goes four feet by, it's gone."

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