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Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Sally Jenkins: Spieth, Johnson go head-to-head into the British Open headwinds

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland –The flags atop the 18th-hole grandstand at Royal St. Andrews blew in four different directions, and the weather report called for conditions to become “quite complicated” over the next couple of days. You could say the same about the British Open leader board, with a very chill Dustin Johnson one stroke ahead of a diverse mix of players who seemed to blow in from different points.

Johnson pounded the Old Course with his driver for a 7-under-par 65, a round that was at once a display of booming golf, and casual buoyancy. It was Johnson’s first competitive round since his painful loss to Jordan Spieth at the U.S. Open, when he three-putted the final hole from just 12-feet, but there was no sign of trauma or tremors on Thursday. Playing again with Spieth, he seized the lead on the par-72 St. Andrews over a packed leader board that included 46-year-old former British champion Paul Lawrie of Scotland in a group of six at 6-under, and the blazing 21-year-old phenom Spieth among five at 5-under, along with pretty much every other major winner you ever heard of except Tiger Woods.

“I don’t really dwell in the past too much,” Johnson said. “You can’t really change it, so there’s no reason to worry about it.”

Johnson, surfer-boy loose and wearing his usual conspicuous chin stubble, ambled across the course with a pronounced lack of deference. At the 13th hole, he stopped for a bathroom break and when he found the port-o-let occupied by his caddie, he stepped behind a screen and simply unzipped and urinated in the hallowed grass next to it, despite the presence of camera crews, scorers, and course officials.

On the tees, he hit dead-straight blasts down the fairways that reduced half the golf course to a pitch-and-putt. He nearly drove four greens and routinely hit past trouble, the dungeon-like sand traps and treacherous swales.

“It’s hard to argue with somebody who’s splitting bunkers at about 380 yards and just putting for birdies on five or six of the holes,” said Spieth, the reigning Masters and U.S. Open champion who shot 67, and who recognized over the course of the day that his biggest obstacle to winning the third leg of the Grand Slam may again be Johnson.

“If DJ keeps driving it the way he is, then I’m going to have to play my best golf to have a chance,” Spieth said. “. . . I don’t have that in the bag, so I’ve got to make up for it with ball-striking.”

Johnson and Spieth took fast advantage of a changeable course that was “calmish” in the morning, as Lawrie put it, and allowed all sorts of unlikely leaders to crawl up the board. Among the half-dozen men tied in second place was Robert Streb, a 28-year-old Kansan who in his first trip overseas found himself in the company of Lawrie, two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen and former Masters champion Zach Johnson, among others. “Never been over here,” Streb said. He pronounced the place “Pretty cold for July,” and puzzled over the dishes at a local Scottish restaurant. “I’m not sure I knew what anything was exactly,” he said.

Another stroke back was 21-year-old Jordan Niebrugge, a college boy from Oklahoma State whose 67 equaled the record for low amateur, and put him in a five-way tie with 2010 British champion Louis Oosthuizen, 2011 Masters winner Charl Schwartzel, Spieth, and Kevin Na.

Then there were the lurkers further back such as former No. 1 Luke Donald (68) and Phil Mickelson (70). But one name conspicuously absent was that of Woods, who promised his game was rehabilitated with his fourth major swing change, but bogeyed the very first hole when he chunked his approach into a burn and went on to a 76 that was his worst opening round at a British Open, and his worst ever at St. Andrews.

“I’ve just got to fight, fight through it,” he said.

Everything promises to be a fight from here on, with high winds and rain predicted for Friday and Saturday. Signs of the weather turning could be seen by the end of the day with players donning thick wool caps and heavy weather parkas.

Johnson and Spieth began the day in patchy sunshine and only a moderate breeze, but as they reached the farthest point of the links, it was 10 degrees colder and a stiff wind and rain mist was blowing straight off the Firth of Tay, where the beach was creamy with whitecaps.

“We just don’t know when the rain is going to start, when it’s going to stop, if it’s going to come back,” Spieth said.

They already had done most of their scoring. In his first nine holes Johnson strung together three birdies, and an eagle at the 570-yard par-5 fifth hole, where he hit such a soaring drive he had just a 7-iron left for his approach. He struck it right over the flagstick to 10 feet.

“Everyone knows the weather is going to get difficult, so it was important to get off to a good start and try to get as many birdies as you can,” Johnson said.

On the tougher finishing holes, Johnson showed his experience in the U.S. Open hasn’t affected his confidence. He made two late par saves with a 10-foot putt on the 16th hole and a 15-footer on the 17th. Afterward, he insisted the Open loss has not haunted him and on the contrary was proud of his runner-up finish to Spieth.

“I played really well, did everything I was supposed to,” he said. “. . . There’s no bad feelings from that, only good.”

Spieth birdied the first two holes and shot 31 on the front to keep pace with Johnson, but he struggled more on the wind-blown second nine. He bogeyed the 13th when he drove into one of the infamous “coffins” bunkers, and the renowned 17th “Road Hole” when his wedge approach found another green-front bunker. But the Texan showed his will when he birdied the 18th with a fish-hooking downhill putt that died in the hole.

If Johnson and Spieth can hold this superb form, their duel here could become a riveting rematch. Though it could be difficult to hold much of anything in the heavy weather that’s approaching.

“You’ve got to be creative,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to use your imagination when you’re out there and the wind is blowing that hard.”

Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at sally.jenkins@washpost.com

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