Muirfield provides no favours to British contingent

On a day when former champions led the way, Britain’s best fell by the wayside.

Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy looks dejected with his caddy JP Fitzgerald

The scorched links of Muirfield resembled ‘Death Valley’ for home hopes with Rory McIlroy and Luke Donald leading the charge to bury their heads in the sand.

The two, both former world No 1, shot rounds of 79 and 80 respectively to end their hopes of Open glory on day one.

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Zach Johnson was the man to set the pace, the American carefully plotting his way to a five-under-par 66.

Applying the pressure a shot back was Spaniard Rafael Cabrera Bello and the 1998 Open champion Mark O’Meara, who despite being 56, still knows his way around a links course.

Tom Lehman, two years his junior and a winner two years before O’Meara, carded a 68 to keep him company on the leaderboard.

Todd Hamilton, who fell off the radar almost as quickly as he arrived on it at Troon nine years ago, is in a group on two under par, alongside Tiger Woods.

The long-time standard bearer for golf, who is back on top of the world rankings, opened solidly as he searches for the major title that would underline his return to former glories.

But it was the absence of any British challenge that was most disappointing, particularly given Justin Rose’s recent success at the US Open at Merion.

Throw in Andy Murray’s historic triumph at Wimbledon, a Lions’ series win and Chris Froome’s impending victory in the Tour de France, and the stage was set for another glorious chapter to be written for British sport here on the East Lothian coast.

But all the home players could muster were bogeys and gripes.

The bogeys were racked up at an astonishing rate on greens that bore the brunt of the players’ criticism, for their speed and the pin placements.

Ian Poulter tweeted his contempt after his promising outward nine of two under deteriorated into a one-over-par 72.

“Unfortunately the guys playing this afternoon are going to struggle with the pin positions,” he tweeted. “The eighth was a joke. All the 18th needed was a windmill and clown face.”

Many a player levelled similar criticism – Yorkshire’s Danny Willett included – prompting Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A, to go on the defensive.

He said: “We have got the conditions here that we really like to have; hard, fast and running.

“We’re obviously very conscious of player comment and we’ll take that into account.

“We’re very happy with the scoring, it’s about what we expect.

“Ian’s comments will be taken and we’ll have a look at it. But we’re still very satisfied with the course. It’s playable, but testing.”

O’Meara was less accommodating, hitting out at younger players who “whine a lot” after the older generation shone on day one.

The 1998 champion made light of the difficulties to card five birdies and an eagle in his four-under-par 67.

And he was not the only old stager to impress with Miguel Angel Jimenez, 49, Lehman, 54, and Hamilton, 47, all under par.

O’Meara said: “I’m not saying that I haven’t complained or gotten upset on the golf course, but I’m not a big fan of guys that get out there and whine a lot.

“I mean, I just don’t see any reason for it, especially today’s generation.

“They’re so talented, the players today, and they’re playing for so much money.

“To be at the top level of whatever sport you’re in, that requires some responsibility.

“That aspect of it I think players should be more aware of and players need to hopefully conduct themselves in the right manner on the golf course.

“When they don’t, it does bother me to be honest.”

O’Meara, whose Open triumph came at Birkdale in a glorious year in which he also won the US Masters, did not have any particular complaints about the course and felt his experience had been crucial.

The American, playing in his 28th Open, said: “I’ve seen the most horrendous conditions you can think about playing golf in. I’ve stood on holes where I could barely hold onto the club and it’s freezing, raining, sleeting and I can’t put my umbrella up.

“To me that’s way more miserable than what we had out there.

“I thought it was tough, it was challenging, but unfair? I say no.

“If they think it’s that way, then they need to look at the old man and say, ‘How did he do it that way?’ They should be able to play in these conditions.

“I realise I’m 56, but I also realise that I’ve won the Open Championship and I also know that links golf is a little bit different than playing in the Masters, it’s a little bit different than playing in the US Open, it’s a little different than a PGA.

“Experience I think plays a big factor in how guys play.”

O’Meara will return refreshed for his second round and put himself further into contention for a third major title.

He said: “Do I think I can (win)? When I play like I did (yesterday), yeah, I think I can.

Lee Westwood was a rare example of someone who had joy on the greens.

For once, the 40-year-old from Worksop found the bottom of the cup with regularity – it was just a pity his usually reliable long game was not up to the same standard.

“It feels like one over is a decent score,” said Westwood after a 72. “It was tricky out there. The greens were interesting.”

Sir Nick Faldo, playing in his first Open for three years, described them as like putting on “glass”, though he did not use that as an excuse for a rusty 79, understandable given his competitive inactivity.

The biggest concern remains with McIlroy, who ever more increasingly looks like a lost figure on the golf course.

He could not use the greens as an excuse after two double bogeys and six more dropped shots in his 79.

McIlroy said: “I wish I could stand up here and tell you guys what’s wrong or what I need to do to make it right, because I feel like I’ve got the shots.

“It’s just a matter of going through the right thought process to hit them and that’s something that I obviously haven’t been doing recently. You don’t know what to do. You’ve got to play your way out of it.

“It’s nothing to do with technique, it’s all mental out there. Sometimes I feel like I’m walking round out there and I’m unconscious. I’m trying to focus and I’m trying to concentrate.”

The leading Briton is Oliver Fisher, who had a 70, one better than Dorset amateur Jimmy Mullen, and only three better than Sheffield teenager Matthew Fitzpatrick, whose score of 73 when compared to the other 16 Englishmen in the field, looks even more creditable.