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Open leaderboard, round one
-5 J Spieth (US), B Koepka (US), M Kuchar (US); -4 P Casey (Eng), C Schwartzel (SA); -3 I Poulter (Eng), J Thomas (US), R Bland (Eng), A Connelly (Can), C Hoffman (US), R Cabrera-Bello (Spa)
Selected: -2 H Matsuyama (Jpn), M Laird (Sco), R Ramsey (Sco), E Els (SA), B Watson (US), S Manley (Wal); -1 M Fitzpatrick (Eng), H Stenson (Swe), A Johnston (Eng), J Day (Aus), A Scott (Aus), J Rahm (Spa); Level P Lawrie (Sco); +1 D Willett (Eng), J Rose (Eng), R Fowler (US), R McIlroy (NI), D Johnson (US), L Westwood (Eng); +3 P Harrington (Ire), P Mickelson (US)
Double major winner Jordan Spieth leads The Open in a three-way tie with US Open champion Brooks Koepka and Matt Kuchar after benign conditions lit up Royal Birkdale.
The three Americans are on five under par, a shot clear of England’s Paul Casey and former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, with a resurgent Ian Poulter a further shot back.
Rory McIlroy, champion in 2014, endured a horrific start to his title charge, falling to five over after six holes, before a remarkable salvage effort brought four birdies on the back nine.
Two-time champion Ernie Els and world number two Hideki Matsuyama are among 14 men just three shots off the lead after a good day for scoring, while reigning champion Henrik Stenson is one under after a steady 69.
After a cold start on the Merseyside coast, the wind stayed steady across this famous links course, and as earlier grey clouds cleared in the afternoon, conditions improved.
Yet with rain and winds forecast for Friday afternoon, and more rain due across much of Saturday, this course is likely to bite back over the next two rounds.
Spieth makes early play
Spieth came close at St Andrews two years ago before fading to fourth after charging up the leaderboard on the final day.
This time the 23-year-old played with the concentration and control of a veteran to make the early running, birdieing the second under overcast skies and repeating the trick on the par-four eighth and ninth.
His 65 is his lowest score for a round at an Open, his form ominous for his rivals after he won the Travelers Championship, his last tournament before arriving in Southport.
Two groups behind, Koepka eagled the 567-yard par-five 17th to complete the back nine in 32 shots, taking a remarkable tally of just 21 putts across his round.
McIlroy makes late play
McIlroy has missed the cut at his past three tournaments and the heavy rust was in evidence again, bogeys coming on all but the second of the first six holes.
It could have been worse – he sunk a 25-foot putt for bogey on the first and made another long one to save par on the seventh – but after a stern talking-to from caddie JP Fitzpatrick he rallied over the back nine, birdieing the par-five 15th and 17th holes before sinking a 15-foot putt on the last to pick up another shot.
It left him level on 71 with world number one Dustin Johnson and keeps alive his hopes of a first major in almost three years, even if there is still an uncertainty in his pre-shot routine and weakness in his swing when the wind blows that belies his track record.
But he has saved face as well as his chances of being here at the weekend, and his clenched-fist celebration as that putt on 18 dropped and the subsequent fist-bump with Fitzpatrick spoke of renewed belief as well as relief.
Casey and Poulter turn back the clock
Casey celebrates his 40th birthday on Friday, and the man who had slipped outside the world top 100 a few years ago was clearly delighted with a four-under 66 that contained just one bogey.
Now a keen recreational cyclist, he prepared for his 15th Open by riding through the Italian Dolomites, and while there are still mountains to climb if he is to go better than his best finish of a tie for third at St Andrews in 2010, he will start his fifth decade as the leading Englishman in the Championship.
Poulter too will be celebrating his 67, a few months after he feared he had lost his PGA Tour card in the United States after poor form and a long-term foot injury sent his ranking plummeting.
The Englishman is now 41, but having finished tied for second at the Players Championship and shown well in the first two rounds of the Scottish Open last week is coming back into rich form at a serendipitous time.
Old champions suffer mixed fortunes
Swede Stenson has not won on Tour this year and has missed the cut six times in his past seven tournaments.
Although he was outshone by playing partner Spieth, his 69 thus represents an encouraging start to the tournament he won so memorably at Troon a year ago.
Phil Mickelson, runner-up behind Stenson in that epic final-day showdown, could not match his spectacular first-round 63 of 12 months ago as he battled to a three-over 73.
Despite enjoying the kindest conditions of the day, it was his first round at The Open in 18 years not to feature a birdie.
At the bottom of the leaderboard sits Mark O’Meara.
The champion here at Birkdale in 1998 opened with a quadruple-bogey eight on his way to an 11-over 81, while fellow former champions Todd Hamilton, David Duval and Louis Oosthuizen are also in the last five.
Let’s set expectation levels early. No golfer from Great Britain or Northern Ireland has ever won The Open at Royal Birkdale.
In nine previous Open Championships on the Southport links, stretching back to 1954, there have been two Australian winners, five Americans and an Irishman.
And there are some fine champions among them. Australian Peter Thomson won the first and last of his five majors there, while Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Jonny Miller have all raised the Claret Jug at “arguably the best Open venue”.
Those are the words of Tommy Fleetwood, the local lad who lived five minutes up the road and “used to sneak on” when he was a boy. He may be a little biased of course but he’s a real contender to become the first Englishman to win The Open since Nick Faldo in 1992.
In fact, since Faldo won the last of his three Open Championships, only Scotland’s Paul Lawrie – at Carnoustie in 1999 – and Northern Irish duo Darren Clarke (2011) and Rory McIlroy (2014) from these shores have been crowned champion golfer of the year.
So, what hope a home winner this time?
The Fleetwood factor
Fleetwood is the name on everyone’s lips. The 26-year-old has risen to a career-high 14th in the world rankings, from 188th last September. Four top-10 finishes towards the end of last season began the journey and two victories this year, including the French Open a couple of weeks ago have catapulted him into the limelight.
He also finished fourth at the US Open in June, having being joint leader at halfway. So he is clearly in form.
Fleetwood “grew up on the local municipal” but admitted “I might have bunked on the odd time and hit the odd shot” at Birkdale.
“The fifth was the place that used to be a lot more open but it’s got fences and bushes there now. You can try [sneaking on]. I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s a lot tougher these days.”
His first Open experience was as a young spectator at Birkdale when Mark O’Meara won in 1998.
“That was the dream,” he continued. “I’d love to speak to my seven-year-old self and tell him what was going to happen in 20 years.
“To be talked about as having a chance to win The Open is something new to deal with but I’d rather have that than have nobody talk about it. To come back to your home and have a chance to win The Open is special.”
The home challenge
World number four Rory McIlroy has had a year hampered by rib and back problems and although he is now playing pain-free, he conceded: “It is something I am going to have to manage until the end of the year.”
He added: “I am just going to have a nice rest period when I don’t have to touch a club and let it heal. Then hopefully I’ll be 100% for next year.”
The 2014 champion heads to the north-west coast on the back of three missed cuts in his past four events.
The last of those was at the Scottish Open on Friday but the 28-year-old said: “If it gives me a couple of extra days to learn this golf course then I don’t really mind.
“I feel like my game is not far away and I can be ready to go on Thursday.”
Justin Rose has never bettered his tied-fourth finish as an amateur in his Open debut at Birkdale in 1998, when he chipped in from around 50 yards for a birdie on the last.
Rose, now 36, added the Olympic title in 2016 to his solitary major – the 2013 US Open – and is ranked 12th in the world, the best of the 12 Englishman in the top 100. Only Paul Casey (16) and Tyrrell Hatton (24) are in the top 25 though.
Ian Poulter,another Englishman to have gone close at Birkdale, finishing second to Padraig Harrington in 2008, was tied for the lead after three rounds of the Scottish Open before falling away in the final round.
If last week’s result is an indicator of form, keep an eye on Callum Shinkwin. The world number 405 would have won the title had he parred the 18th.
And can you ever count out Lee Westwood, teeing it up at his 78th major? Is 2017 finally his year after a record nine top-three finishes in majors without winning one?
Scottish hopes rest with Richie Ramsey, Martin Laird and Russell Knox. Ramsey fared the best in his home tournament at Dundonald Links, being the only one of the three to make the cut.
Laird is playing his first Open since 2013, while Knox is competing in his third.
Sandy Lyle, Open champion in 1985, returns to the scene of two of his less glorious days. He walked off the course midway through his opening round in 2008, having also failed to finish his second round in 1991.
The Spanish charge
Masters champion Sergio Garcia is getting married the weekend after The Open but insists his focus “is where it has to be” as he looks to continue a sparkling run of success for Spain.
Compatriots Jon Rahm and Rafael Cabrera Bello were victorious at the Irish and Scottish Opens respectively in the weeks preceding The Open.
And Garcia, 37, said: “Winning the Masters does give you a little bit of extra confidence and I’ve been having a very solid year.
“I am confident about my possibilities and after winning at Augusta I still want to push hard and get more majors.”
Rahm, 22, only turned professional in June 2016 but he has won on both the PGA and European Tours, with his six-shot victory at Portstewart helping him to seventh in the world rankings.
The Basque-born golfer is the same age as his idol Seve Ballesteros was when he won his first Open, having shot to prominence three years earlier with a runner-up finish at Birkdale in 1976.
“If I could do a quarter of whatever he did, I’d probably be satisfied with my career,” said Rahm. “To whoever compares me to him, I’m never going to be Seve. Seve was so unique, so special.”
He is taking part in his fourth major, having missed the cut at last month’s US Open and finishing tied for 59th on his Open debut last year.
Padraig Harrington was the last man to defend the title successfully, winning his second Open at Birkdale in 2008.
And the Irishman is not lacking in confidence this week. “I think I’m a credible contender on any golf course, but bring me to a links golf course and it gives me an advantage for sure,” he said.
However, the past seven majors have all been won by a different name, starting with Jason Day’s victory at the 2015 US PGA Championship.
And Sweden’s Henrik Stenson has admitted that his current unconvincing form means he is only “living in hope” that he can emulate Harrington.
“Looking at my record, it’s always been the Open Championship and the US PGA I’ve performed best in,” said the champion golfer of 2016. “Those are the two we have left this year, so we better get at it.”
The US challenge
World number one Dustin Johnson has three top-10 finishes in his past six Opens, perhaps laying to rest the notion that he does not have the patience to plot his way round a links golf course.
He remains favourite with the bookmakers but, like McIlroy, his season has been dogged by injury. He pulled out of the Masters in April on the first tee and missed the cut at the US Open, the scene of his solitary major win in 2016.
Jordan Spieth had a sensational 2015, winning the first two majors of the year and finishing tied fourth at The Open and second at the US PGA Championship. However, the Texan has failed to reach those heights again since letting slip a five-shot lead at the 2016 Masters.
A victory at last month’s Travelers Championship saw him match Tiger Woods in reaching 10 PGA Tour wins at the age of 23 and the world number three says he feels “fresh and ready to go” after taking “a few weeks’ break”.
Unusually for an American, US Open champion Brooks Koepka began his career on the European Tour, winning his card during the 2013 season before giving it up in 2015. The 27-year-old has a best finish of tied 10th in his three previous Opens.
After finishing in the top five in all four majors in 2014, including tied second at The Open, Rickie Fowler failed to post another top-five until this year’s US Open. He was well placed at both Erin Hills, and Augusta at the Masters, but poor final rounds proved costly.
The 28-year-old has proved he can play links golf, with victory at the 2015 Scottish Open.
And don’t count out last year’s runner-up Phil Mickelson. Winner in 2013, the left-hander had an enthralling battle with Stenson at Troon but ended up second for the 11th time at a major.
He made his Open debut at Birkdale in 1991 and was denied the Silver Medal for being low amateur by Lincolnshire’s Jim Payne, who shot a level-par 70 in the company of Jack Nicklaus.
The global challenge
Hideki Matsuyama is the form man of the year, having won five titles in the past 12 months to become the first Japanese player to reach number two in the world rankings.
His record in majors over the past year is also excellent. He was joint second at the US Open, having finished 11th at the Masters and fourth at last year’s US PGA Championship, and has one top-10 in four Opens.
Adam Scott and Jason Day are both major winners and the Australians have also contested at Opens, with the former having an excellent run of three top-five finishes from 2011, while the latter was tied fourth a couple of years ago.
South Korea’s Kim Si-woo is ranked 32nd in the world and making his Open debut. In May he became the youngest winner of the Players Championship at the age of 21. He followed that with a decent US Open, only falling away in the final round to finish joint 13th.
Five-time Open champion JH Taylor was instrumental in the layout, which sees the fairways following the valleys between the sand dunes and affords great views for spectators.
The 7,150-yard track plays as a par 70 and first staged The Open in 1954, having originally been scheduled to host in 1940 when the championship was cancelled because of World War Two.
Birkdale was afforded ‘Royal’ status in 1951 and twice hosted the Ryder Cup in the 1960s, the second time being the one at which Jack Nicklaus famously conceded a putt to Tony Jacklin that saw the contest end tied.
6 – 499 yards, par four
The left-to-right dog-leg was the hardest hole during each of the past two Opens at Birkdale.
Even a decent drive, avoiding the bunkers protecting the fairway, will leave an approach of around 200 yards into a green that sits above the fairway, angles from left to right and is guarded by three bunkers.
12 – 183 yards, par three
The first short hole on the back nine features a green built into a sand dune which is well protected by deep bunkers and banks of rough grass. If the wind blows, finding the green will be tough.
16 – 438 yards, par four
A long, straight drive is required to find a narrow fairway. Another elevated green awaits, protected by five bunkers. The hole is famous for a shot played by the late Arnold Palmer from a bush on the right side of the fairway on the way to winning his first Open in 1961.
17 – 567 yards, par five
One of only two par fives on the course, the 17th played as the easiest hole in 2008 and is a good birdie opportunity. Harrington eagled the hole twice, including in the final round, as he won his second Claret Jug nine years ago.
Of course, the weather is a huge factor at any Open Championship. High winds and storms have wrecked many a card over the years.
The BBC forecast suggests a breezy but sunny Thursday, followed by a dry Friday morning, with showers in the afternoon. Saturday and Sunday looks set for a mixture of showers and sunshine.
Live: Listen to BBC Radio 5 live commentary and follow text updates – including in-play video clips – on BBC Sport website and mobile app. TV highlights on BBC Two. Click for full times.
Justin Rose is hoping to recreate the “innocence” of his performance as a 17-year-old amateur at Royal Birkdale in 1998 at this week’s Open Championship.
The Englishman chipped in for a birdie on the last hole to finish tied fourth.
“It surprises me that is still the best finish,” said the 2013 US Open and 2016 Olympic champion.
“The freedom I had that week, the confidence I had in my short game, the innocence in which I played the game, I think, is kind of still a model.”
Rose equalled the record low score for an amateur at The Open with a 66 in round two on the par-70 course, before delighting the crowd with his 50-yard birdie chip on the Sunday.
“When I look back I marvel at how I was able to compete so closely down the stretch, and finish within two shots of winning an Open Championship at the age of 17,” reflected the 36-year-old.
“It’s definitely a championship I’ve had great moments in.
“I don’t want to say that if I don’t win this it’s going to be a huge sort of hole in my career, but it was the one tournament that even before I finished fourth here as an amateur, I got to final qualifying at the age of 14 and created a bit of a story then.
“And to win it would kind of close the book in a way on my Open Championship story.”
‘Wise’ Westwood plotting his challenge
Lee Westwood plans to use “cunning and guile” to plot his way to a first major victory at his 78th attempt.
The 44-year-old has finished in the top three at majors nine times – a record for a player yet to win one – and three of those have come at The Open.
Darren Clarke, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson were all over 40 when they won successive Championships from 2011.
“You have to think your way round,” said Englishman Westwood.
“I’m 44 and you think a little bit differently as you get older, but hopefully I can think a bit more wisely and use a bit of cunning and guile on the golf course.”
Westwood missed out on a play-off at the 2009 Open at Turnberry by one shot, was a distant second to Louis Oosthuizen in 2010 and then let slip a two-shot advantage when leading into the final round at Muirfield in 2013.
He believes links golf offers him the best chance of winning one of the sport’s four majors.
“One of the times I’ve come close to winning was Turnberry and Tom Watson lost in a play-off at 59,” he added. “Last time it was held around here [in 2008] Greg Norman made a run at it at 53.
“The US Open course [in June at Erin Hills] was a bomber’s style course where they had a big advantage, but this course brings a lot more players into it.
“The Open Championship always does with the weather and the way the golf course plays.”