SANDWICH, England (AP) — Tom Lewis shares a name with one of the British Open’s greatest champions.
The kid sure lived up to it Thursday.
Lewis, a 20-year-old amateur, shot a 5-under 65 to share the lead after the opening round of golf’s oldest major – a day that was even more special because he played alongside the man he was named after: five-time Open champion Tom Watson.
“I was more nervous not to embarrass myself in front of him,” Lewis said.
No worries there. Lewis pulled off some Watson-like shots at Royal St. George’s, making four straight birdies coming down the stretch before a par-saving tap-in at the 18th left him tied with Thomas Bjorn.
“He could be my grandson,” quipped the 61-year-old Watson, who needed seven more strokes than his namesake to get around the course. “I just had to smile inside watching him play. I didn’t play particularly well myself, but I certainly was impressed by the way he played.”
Lewis’ late-afternoon charge was definitely impressive, but it didn’t totally overshadow an early morning round by Bjorn, who was playing at this course on the English seaside for the first time since his meltdown in the 2003 Open.
That’s when he threw away a two-stroke lead in the final three holes – who can forget him needing three swings just to escape the bunker at No. 16? – and allowed Ben Curtis to snatch away the claret jug with one of the sport’s most shocking upsets.
Two very different players.
Two hugely compelling stories atop the leaderboard.
“I’m 40 years old,” Bjorn said, “and there might just be a little bit more in me.”
Long after the Dane had completed his round – he was done by lunchtime – an English phenom half his age surged up the board by taking full advantage of the afternoon calm that made this place ripe for the taking.
Lewis posted the lowest round ever for an amateur in the British Open, beating the 66 posted by Frank Stranahan in 1950 and matched by Tiger Woods (1996) and Justin Rose (1998). The youngster also became the first amateur to lead a round at a major since 1976, when Mike Reid was up by three strokes heading to the second day of the U.S. Open.
“We certainly have a new young breed out here, don’t we?” Watson marveled. “We have a lot of young players playing very good golf.”
An older one didn’t do so badly, either.
Bjorn has struggled since the death of his father two months ago, breaking down in tears when asked what effect the loss had on him.
“He meant a lot to me,” the golfer said. “He would have been very proud of what I did.”
Bjorn certainly isn’t dwelling on what happened eight years ago, the last time the Open was held just up the road from the cliffs of Dover.
“A lot of people make a lot of things about that, but the only way I can play golf is to concentrate on the shot in front of me,” he said. “It never entered my mind.”
Bjorn had some good fortune at the 16th this time. He thought his 9-iron was headed for the bunker, but the ball took a fortunate bounce and rolled down toward the cup. He made the putt for his third birdie in a row.
“We all know what it’s like,” Bjorn said. “A bounce here or there, and then it goes either wrong or right. Today, it went my way.”
U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy got off to a sluggish start but was still in the mix, putting up a 71 that left him six strokes back.
Considering he played in the morning, when conditions were tougher, McIlroy had no complaints about a round that began with a pair of bogeys on the first three holes.
“It was a day where you just needed to grind out a score,” McIlroy said. “Anywhere around even par was a good start.”
In the afternoon, the gusting breezes off the Strait of Dover died down and the rain held off, resulting in about twice as many rounds in the 60s as the morning starters put up.
But there were plenty of red numbers all over the board. Lucas Glover, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Webb Simpson were just one stroke off the lead. Eight players shot 68, ranging from major winners Graeme McDowell and Martin Kaymer to alternates Ricky Barnes and Simon Dyson.
Heck, Bjorn was an alternate, getting in only one day of practice after learning Monday night he had a spot because of Vijay Singh’s withdrawal. The group at 68 also included Kyle Stanley, who hustled over on an overnight flight for his first Open after qualifying Sunday with a runner-up finish in the John Deere Classic.
Lewis has some experience on this course, winning the 2009 British Boys Amateur at Royal St. George’s, and he sure knew his way around the place. He’ll hold off on turning pro until after the Walker Cup this fall.
McIlroy had not played since his dominating win at Congressional last month. The 22-year-old from Northern Ireland might have been a bit rusty, struggling to keep it straight off the tee and looking shaky with the putter.
Still, there’s plenty of time for a comeback. Bjorn and Lewis are intriguing but McIlroy has emerged as the new face of golf – especially while Tiger Woods sits out his second straight major, trying to heal an injured leg.
Playing right behind McIlroy was England’s Luke Donald, ranked No. 1 in the world and coming off a runaway win in Scottish Open. His day went much like McIlroy’s, leaving them both to settle for 71s.
The 47-year-old Jimenez capped off a bogey-free round with a brilliant chip at the 18th. The portly Spaniard saved par with a short putt after he drove into the tall grass. Then, lighting up his familiar cigar, he headed off to the putting green.
A pair of Americans also finished strong.
The bearded Glover, who won the 2009 U.S. Open, birdied the final three holes for his 66, most impressively the tough 18th.
Dustin Johnson was struggling through a mediocre round when he suddenly caught fire at the 14th. He had two straight birdies leading to the shot of the day – a hole-in-one at the 16th.
The ball rocketed onto the green, slammed against the flagstick and disappeared from view. Back on the tee, Johnson high-fived playing partner Ian Poulter, celebrating the first ace at the Open since Thomas Levet’s in the final round at Turnberry two years ago.
Johnson made another birdie at 17 before a closing bogey left him with a 70.
The U.S. is eager for Glover, Johnson or Stanley – heck, anyone – to break through. The Americans have gone five straight majors without a title, their longest drought in the modern Grand Slam era.
Phil Mickelson, the last American to win a major, knocked it all over the place but pulled off a nifty up-and-down at the final hole to salvage a 70. Defending champion Louis Oosthuizen struggled to a 72 that should have been better with an afternoon tee time.
The weather is always the biggest unknown at the British Open. Punishing gusts whipped across Royal St. George’s during the practice rounds, and storms can blow in off the sea at any time.
For the most part, the nasty weather held off Thursday, allowing two very different players to share the spotlight.
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