SANDWICH, England — The majors finally had a degree of normalcy Thursday at Royal St. George’s. Louis Oosthuizen and Jordan Spieth leading the way at the British Open felt pretty familiar, too.
Cheered on by the biggest golf crowd since the coronavirus outbreak, Oosthuizen saved par from a fairway bunker on the final hole for a 6-under 64 to take the early lead. Spieth was only one stroke back by making putts like it was 2017 all over again.
“It feels inside the ropes, from the first tee forward, the most normal of any tournament we have played thus far relative to that same tournament in previous years, pre-COVID,” said Spieth, whose run of four straight birdies in his round of 65 reminded him of his play at Royal Birkdale when he lifted the claret jug four years ago.
Oosthuizen is coming off two straight runner-up finishes at majors — the PGA Championship and the U.S. Open — and is contending again after tying the lowest opening round at Royal St. George’s. Christy O’Connor Jr. had a 64 in 1981.
That didn’t look as though it would be the case after the South African opened with seven straight pars. He followed with six birdies in his next nine holes.
“I’ve learnt over the years playing major championships that patience is the key thing,” said Oosthuizen, who hasn’t won one of them since the British Open at St. Andrews in 2010. There have been six runner-up finishes in the majors since then.
Patience already might be wearing thin for U.S. Open champion Jon Rahm, who slapped his thigh in frustration after making a double-bogey at No. 9 after taking two shots to get out of a pot bunker in the fairway. He shot 71. Bryson DeChambeau had the same score after spending much of his first round up to his knees in deep grass and unable to use his power to overwhelm Royal St. George’s.
Shane Lowry, the defending champion from 2019, also shot 71 in front of a crowd that has a daily capacity of 32,000 this week. Not since Royal Portrush, where Lowry won, has a major seen so many spectators through the gates.
There was plenty of good scoring on a course where soft fairways and greens — because of recent rain — negated the impact of its storied undulations.
By halfway through the first round, 14 players had shot 67 or better. They included Justin Rose and three more of his countrymen looking to become the first English winner of golf’s oldest championship since Nick Faldo in 1992.
Brian Harman was tied for second with Spieth after making five birdies in his first eight holes and finishing with another for 65.
Stewart Cink, the 2009 champion at Turnberry, was in a three-way tie for fourth place with Dylan Frittelli and MacKenzie Hughes after 66s.
Top-ranked Dustin Johnson hit 14 greens in regulation and said he was pleased with his round of 68 that had him in a tie for 15th.
Spieth had not won since Birkdale until he ended his slump at the Texas Open in April. He looked the happiest of anyone, saying he liked where his game was at after matching his lowest score at an Open. He also had a 65 on the first day at Birkdale.
And he made reference to that victory while running off four straight birdies starting at No. 5, telling former caddie John Wood — part of the U.S. broadcast team — that it was just like 2017 the way he was making putts and Wood was watching him. Wood was caddying in the final round at Birkdale for Matt Kuchar, who was second.
“Here I feel for the first time since then I’m at least coming in with a bit of form, a bit of confidence, and really my start lines off the tee,” Spieth said.
The return of the spectators made it feel like a proper Open, especially on the hill overlooking the par-3 6th hole that attracted some of the biggest galleries of a day that started with a blue, cloudless sky and featured sporadic gusts.
Just before midday, the group containing Cink, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer all hit tee shots inside 6 feet of the pin. As they walked onto the green to mark their balls, one spectator shouted: “You three should be professionals.”
To which Kaymer’s caddie, Craig Connolly, replied back across the green: “You should be a comedian.”
“I feel like the fans here are very knowledgeable about the sport,” Spieth said, “and they’re also having a great time.”
Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80