Kevin Kisner takes Open Championship lead as Carnoustie holds its own
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — Whether the turf is sun-baked or rain-soaked, brown or green, no matter if players attack with driver or proceed cautiously with irons, Carnoustie showed Thursday in the British Open that it can hold its own.
In what might be the easiest conditions of the week, Kevin Kisner took only 22 putts, one of them for a long eagle that sparked his 5-under 66. It gave him a one-shot lead and little more than bragging rights in the house of stars where he is staying.
One shot behind was a collection of players with little history in golf's biggest events, including Erik Van Rooyen and Zander Lombard of South Africa. Tony Finau had eight birdies to offset his share of mistakes to join them at 67.
Of the top seven on the leaderboard, none has won a major.
Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm powered their way to 69s, going for the green on short par 4s. Tiger Woods took out his driver one time and shot 71, a round slowed by a short putt he missed and a pot bunker he couldn't avoid.
But no one could go really low. The 31 players who managed to break par were separated by just four shots.
"The golf course is great for me," Kisner said. "The conditions have been fine. Going forward, you never know what you're going to have in Scotland. I know the rain is coming in tomorrow. I don't think the rain is going to affect how the golf course is playing in one day, but I have to just keep doing what I'm doing. If I have 22 puts the next three days, I bet I'll have a pretty good shot."
Three of his housemates also were under par — PGA champion Justin Thomas (69), two-time major champion Zach Johnson (70) and Rickie Fowler (70). Another is defending champion Jordan Spieth, who was in range of the lead until he made one mental error and two bad swings while dropping four shots over the last four holes for a 72 that didn't do too much damage.
Even in gentle weather by Scottish standards, Carnoustie served up its usual dose of craziness.
Padraig Harrington holed a short putt for par on the opening hole and turned to leave when he saw a golf ball trundle onto the green. It was the tee shot of U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka, who hit driver off the tee to set up an easy birdie.
That was as easy as it got for Koepka for the next two hours. He shot 41 on the front nine. And then he shot 31 on the back nine.
"The scores probably weren't as low as we anticipated, but 1 over is not the worst," Koepka said. "Definitely didn't shoot myself out of it, which very easily could have happened."
Sergio Garcia hit a drive that never stopped rolling on No. 10 until it dropped over the edge of Barry Burn. The water was shallow enough for the former Masters champion to smash through a ball rock and water to get the club on the ball and escape without further damage.
Carnoustie was not kind to everyone.
Dustin Johnson, the world's No. 1 player, managed only one birdie in his round of 76, his highest start in the Open since his debut at Turnberry in 2009. Masters champion Patrick Reed, Hideki Matsuyama, Bubba Watson and Garcia were all at 75 and now have to worry about just getting to the weekend.
On the longest day — from Sandy Lyle hitting the opening tee shot at 6:35 a.m. and the group including newcomer Bronson Burgoon finishing off the first round nearly 13 hours later — everyone had their own style of getting around the course reputed to be the toughest links in golf.
"Different players are going to have a different way to see how they're going to play this golf course," McIlroy said. "I know Tiger is out there hitting a lot of irons off tees and doing it his own way. No one's going to argue with him — he did it like at Hoylake, and he was able to win there."
There's one difference, Woods said.
"Hoylake is flat. This is not," Woods said. "And when Hideki hits a 3-wood 400 yards into a burn, you know it's kind of quick. A couple of my 6-irons went about 240. It's hard for people to understand it, but it's just the nature of this golf course."
Kisner's best score in three previous trips to the British Open was a 69 in the final round last year at Royal Birkdale. The firm, crusty conditions are not entirely new. It reminds him of Palmetto, the Alister Mackenzie design in his hometown of Aiken, South Carolina.
Not so familiar was his putting. Kisner, normally solid with his striking and his short game, has not contended since the week after the Masters, and he putted so poorly at the Greenbrier two weeks ago that he spent most of his time on putting when he arrived at Carnoustie.
"Worked really hard on my speed, which is always the hardest thing for us to get accustomed to here," he said. "And the ball started coming off on the line, and when I'm doing that, I feel like I can hole them all."