ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — The Old Course has never been faster. The pace of play has never been slower.
Thursday’s celebrated start of the 150th British Open saw Cameron Young make his debut with an eight-under 64 for a two-shot lead over Rory McIlroy, and Tiger Woods making what could be his last competitive appearance in St. .Andrews a brief one.
His score would indicate that. Woods began his round by hitting from a divot into the Swilcan Burn for a double bogey. He finished it with three putts through the Valley of Sin for a par and a 78, the second-lowest score of his Open career.
Woods will try to avoid leaving St. Andrews early for the second time in a row.
“Looks like I’m going to have to shoot 66s tomorrow to have a chance,” Woods said. “The boys did it today. And that’s my responsibility tomorrow, to go ahead and do it, I need to do it.”
Young and McIlroy didn’t have to deal with as much wind in the morning, though St. Andrews has seen much stronger gusts during their centuries of golf. Add in the humps and mounds and tricky pin positions, and the Old Course held its own.
“It is the most difficult Open I have ever played. It’s the only way I can really describe it,” McIlroy said. “OK, 18th at Carnoustie was like a track, that street. But around the greens here and all the slopes and undulations and everything, I think as the tournament goes on, you’re going to get some fun rebounds and it’s going to test your patience at times.”
Nothing tested patience like constant waiting. By late afternoon, the rounds lasted just over six hours. They waited on the tee and in the fairway, and it didn’t help that so many players were looking for the best angles to squeeze the pins and playing left onto other fairways.
“It’s the way the golf course is set up. It’s how tight it is,” US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick said after his 72nd. “The way the golf course is designed… to get better angles and better lines, you have to hit every fairway. Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do about it. It’s sad more than anything. It’s just ridiculous.”
Good scores were available and 54 players broke par, 26 of them with rounds in the 60s.
Young was a surprise leader only because it is his first time competing in an Open Links. He’s had one of the best rookie seasons on the PGA Tour, and the 25-year-old New Yorker isn’t the least bit intimidated by the stage. Just two months ago, he competed in the final hour of the PGA Championship to finish one shot out of a playoff.
Young played smart and took advantage of birdie opportunities. He hit 7-under through 12 holes with the wind helping on the inside nine. He missed two good chances, finished with a birdie and, most importantly, kept bogeys off his card.
“I don’t think I played a perfect round of golf,” Young said. “I scored very well. And I think we thought our way around the way you have to do it.”
Young believes he only knows a fraction of the secrets of the Old Course (nobody really figures it all out with so many conditions on the ground and in the air) and there was one occasion on the par-5 fifth when he looked at his note in the yardage book: ” The hard left is better than the right.” He went left and birdied.
“We did stuff like that a few times today,” Young said.
Players Championship winner Cameron Smith and English qualifier Robert Dinwiddie each scored a 67. Dinwiddie had the best score in the afternoon when the wind was strongest. The large group of 66-year-olds included Masters champion Scottie Scheffler, Dustin Johnson and even Barclay Brown, the English fan who plays at Stanford.
Xander Schauffele, coming off his second win in a row last week, was in the group with 69.
Scheffler tried to explain how fast the links played by suggesting that the ball rolled faster on the fairways than on the greens. Then he realized that it was actually the case. It gets like this in St. Andrews when the ground is crisp and the Open comes to gray old town.
“Are they? I’m glad I’m not losing my mind,” Scheffler said.
McIlroy looked free as ever at St. Andrews, his first time at the Open since 2010. His game is in fine form and he racked up five birdies from 12 holes, with only one sloppy play leading to his only bogey on the 13th.
“Fantastic start. Just what you expect to happen when you start your week,” McIlroy said. “I did everything you’re supposed to do at St Andrews.”
On the other hand, good starts are nothing new this year. He led the PGA Championship after 18 holes and was a shot behind after the first round of the US Open. Both times, he couldn’t keep his composure until he fell too far behind to catch up.
“I need to go out tomorrow and back up what I just did today,” he said.
Defending champion Collin Morikawa struggled with his putt and hit a 72. Morikawa knew how long he was in for when there was a group on the fifth tee, and the group in front was just starting to walk onto the fairway.
“Xander and I talked about it. We’re watching more golf than ever,” Morikawa said, referring to how they both rarely watch television. “You stay on the fairway and you’re watching two other groups play golf.”
Sometimes it was hard to see Woods. He had 6 over seven holes, missing more putts than usual and missing off the tee. His tee shot on No. 7 was so far to the left that he ended up in a bunker on 12th fairway, prompting another double bogey.
There were consecutive birdies around the turn, but little else to celebrate.
Woods had signaled this week even as his right leg shattered in a car accident in February 2021 prevented him from playing. The Open probably won’t return to St. Andrews for another five years, and the 46-year-old Woods can’t help but wonder if he’ll be playing at a high level by then.
“This was always on the schedule to be good enough to play it. And I am,” she said. “And he just didn’t do a very good job.”