The Open Championship looks like a trip into the past this week
At The Open Championship, golf truly looks ancient. The links-style courses without trees, the often brown fairways and pot bunkers that look like they could host archaeological digs look a bit removed from the lush, dark green hues we are so used to during the PGA TOUR season.
Links design is golf design from another era. Where “difficulty” for many golf courses involves tiny greens, water all over, and trees to create narrow targets, The Open is free from these things. Difficulty is getting the ball caught in grass that goes up to the waist. Difficulty is being left with a 130 foot putt because of giant, rolling greens. Difficulty at links courses comes from punishing bunkers and wind with nothing to interfere.
On Thursday, shots rolled on what seemed like near-concrete fairways amid what seemed to be a perfect day at Carnoustie. All difficulty was provided by the course itself, without the usual assist from the elements. There was wind, but not the kind of insurmountable obstacle that the tournament is best known for. Dry conditions meant longer drives, and shots that might seem short rolling up to the green. However, softened and slowly drying greens created an inconsistent golf environment. Groups scheduled for early rounds were at a decisive advantage over those scheduled later in the day.
The early birds got the worm in the first round, with American Kevin Kisner taking a lead into the first evening. Most of the scores under par were indeed morning tee times, as sun made soft greens faster and less responsive to shots as the day went on. Later groups, such as the one that included Tiger Woods and Hideki Matsuyama, found a much more hostile course than Kisner played on earlier in the day. This resulted in some up-and-down afternoon rounds. Woods shot even par, with three birdies and three bogeys offsetting. The 71 will not go down as one of his finest rounds, but the great champion looked healthy, and looked determined in his Thursday round.
The question with Tiger is when he’ll have played enough golf to have gotten past the rust built up over eight years of stop-and-go golf. Professional golf is a grind. Natural talent is in surplus on tour, and as a result tournaments often come down to who is in the most polished form at the moment. With a field of young guys, players who can physically go out there and play every week they want to, even somebody as seasoned as the great Tiger Woods is going to need time to get back to his old self.
At first, health was the concern. Months in, he has not had to withdraw from any of his scheduled events due to pain or lingering injury, so it appears that he is getting past that phase. Now it’s more about getting into his rhythm as a golfer, which is a difficult thing to do.
As Woods continues his comeback, he is finding a tour that has been reshaped in his image. Golfers work out now because he led them by example. Players’ pre-round warmups with the putter largely are modeled after a routine Tiger had made famous.
For Tiger Woods to win again, then, he is going to need to beat the example he set himself twenty years ago.
Rory McIlroy wasn’t away as long as Woods, but Rory too is on the comeback trail off of injuries that limited him severely in 2017.
The sensation from Northern Ireland felt very much at home in the UK’s major, posting a -2 69 to put himself in a fairly good position after one round. McIlroy was one of the rare afternoon golfers to post a low score on Thursday, implying he might be even sharper than the score indicates. As the times invert for Friday’s round, it could be an advantage to Rory, who could make a leap up the leaderboard should conditions throughout the day mirror what they did on Thursday.
Results have been inconsistent. McIlroy missed the cut at the Valspar Championship in the Tampa Bay Area, but finished fifth at the Masters. He then went on to miss the cut at the US Open, but he is off to a good start at the oldest of golf’s major championships.
For a moment, it looked as though defending champion Jordan Spieth had figured out his troubles with the putter.
Spieth came into The Open riding an unfortunate slump due to his struggles with the flat stick. Putting can come and go, even for the most seasoned of the professionals, and when it goes there is no telling how long a player needs to work to get it back.
With so many moving parts in a putt, it is incredibly hard to diagnose putting issues in the moment. This is one of the things that can make golf frustrating for professionals and amateurs alike. Troubleshooting issues in a golf swing is an incredibly nuanced and complicated thing to do.
For Spieth, the only cure is going to be more golf. Whether he is struggling or not, he has to keep playing until he gets his putting touch back. Part of the appeal of golf, to all golfers, is that there are no shortcuts. Getting better at golf is tremendous work for the career golfer and the part-timer in equal measure.
For more on The Open Championship, Tim Williams joined the Erik Kuselias Show on Thursday morning to discuss the tournament and golf in general.