GULLANE, Scotland — Zach Johnson’s putter was as red-hot as the weather at Muirfield on Thursday as the 2007 Masters champion shot a 5-under-par 66 to set a blistering pace in the British Open first round.
Johnson was making an electric start to the third major of the year, world No. 2 Rory McIlroy crashed to an eight-over 79 and European Ryder Cup team mate Luke Donald ballooned to an 80.
Tiger Woods has developed something of a penchant for errant first-hole tee shots and the world No. 1 did it again on the east coast of Scotland, snap-hooking his 3-wood deep into the rough to open with a bogey.
The 14-time major champion bounced back, however, with four birdies on the back nine, leaving him at 69.
Mark O’Meara flew a surprise flag for the “golden oldies,” the 56-year-old American tucking into a share of second place with Rafael Cabrera-Bello at 67.
One stroke back were Americans Dustin Johnson, Brandt Snedeker and Tom Lehman, Miguel Angel Jimenez of Spain and India’s Shiv Kapur.
Most of the players found the knee-high rough difficult to cope with and scores were high on the banks of the Firth of Forth.
The parched and dry links course also made it tough for the 156-strong field to control the ball on the fairways and the greens but most of the complaints were about the fiendish pin positions laid out by the Royal & Ancient organizers.
Zach Johnson proved to be the best of the bunch, waving his putter like a magic wand to birdie the third, sixth and seventh and eagle the long fifth.
The 37-year-old made further inroads on par at the 12th before dropping his only stroke of the day at the 14th.
“Any time you shoot under par in an Open or a major, for that matter, you have to be putting at least decent and I putted great,” Johnson told reporters as temperatures rose to 80 degrees.