British Open:7 things we learned Thursday at Royal Troon

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A perfect day of weather at Royal Troon lead to some low scores during round one of the Open Championship.
By Matt S. Craig
PGA.com

Published: Thursday, July 14, 2016 | 9:50 a.m.

1. Phil Mickelson flirted with history

Phil Mickelson has already accomplished more in his career than most, including five major championships and 42 career victories. But he had a chance on Thursday to do something that no one in the history of the game has ever done: shoot a 62 in a major.

After a 4-under par 32 on the getable front nine, Mickelson burned up the back nine with four more birdies, reaching the 18th tee at -8 and needing just a birdie for the record.

A fortuitous bounce away from a pot bunker on his drive and a solid approach shot gave Mickelson about a 20 foot putt. It tracked perfectly and looked dead center, before curving at the last instance and lipping out, leaving Mickelson stunned with his head in his hands.

As a nice consolation prize Mickelson became the ninth player in Open Championship history to shoot a 63, shot almost six strokes lower than the field average on the back nine, and holds a three-stroke lead at Royal Troon.

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2. It's best to go low on the front, then hold on for dear life

The story coming into the week revolved around the set up of the golf course, and the dichotomy of the outward and inward nines. Day 1 proved that storyline to be true, with the front nine playing almost two full strokes lower than the back nine for the field average.

Many players sat high on the leaderboard as they made the turn before crashing down toward par. Bubba Watson was 5-under par early on, but walked off the 11th green at even. Rory McIlroy followed his first 32 with a 37. Matt Jones went 31-38, Ross Fisher 32-39.

The main reason for this is the direction of the wind, which is at the players' backs as they head out and turns into and across their face as they come back in. As with most Open Championships, monitoring the direction and harshness of the wind is critical. However, don't underestimate the sheer difficulty of the hole layouts of those last nine holes.

3. Americans dominated Troon once again

The last six Open Championships held at Royal Troon have been won by Americans, dating back to Arnold Palmer's in 1962.

Early indications appear bright for this year's crop of Americans, with eight in the top eleven. The group was led by Patrick Reed, who shot the morning's low round, and Phil Mickelson, who shot the lowest in the afternoon.

Among that group of eight near the top are previous major champions like Zach Johnson and Keegan Bradley and young players like Billy Horschel and Tony Finau.

4. Disaster lurks everywhere

One signature feature of the Open Championship is its unpredictability. The weather is just as likely to be sunny and mild as it is gusty and wet, and the scores can vary from eagles to double bogeys on the same hole.

That unpredicatbility played out on Thursday, with every hole yielding at least six birdies and 17 of the holes recording at least one double-bogey or worse score.

One misplaced shot can turn a birdie opportunity into a nightmare, especially if the ball finds its way into one of the deep bunkers surrounding most of the greens.

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5. Drive for show, putt for dough, sort of

Most of the analysis in the lead-up to the tournament said that the key for players was going to be how long and straight they could drive the golf ball. Yet Round 1 leaders weren't dominant off the tee. Patrick Reed and Justin Thomas only hit 57 percent of their fairways, and Zach Johnson and Steve Stricker both average under 275 yard on their drives.

The key facet turned out to be with the flat stick. Mickelson, Reed, Stricker, and Horschel all ranked in the top 10 in fewest putts and number of one putts.

In addition, it was the players who avoided the disaster holes described above who found their way to the top of the leaderboard. The top 11 players combined for just one double bogey or worse between them. That may be difficult to maintain with the weather worsening over the weekend, but it could be the key to hoisting the Claret Jug.

6. The winds of change

Conventional wisdom tells us that players with morning tee times are more likely to avoid the high winds, and thus be able to post lower scores. But on a picture-perfect weather day like Thursday, the winds actually died down in the afternoon and completely died in the evening.

This allowed the scores to remain low for players with afternoon tee times, though the drying greens gained speed and held the scores in check somewhat. However, players like Mickelson and Zach Johnson were able to take advantage and fire low scores.

The forecast the rest of the week calls for rain and high winds, but if we've learned anything from past Opens, it's that the forecast can change in an instant.

7. Troon is a course for the old and the young

The top of the leaderboard includes a fascinating mix of both the new generation and the past generation of players. Justin Thomas is 23, Phil Mickelson is 46. Patrick Reed is 25, Steve Stricker is 49. Tony Finau is 26, Zach Johnson is 40.

Earlier today we looked at why older players can thrive at the Open. However, of all the majors, this championship is the one with the lowest average age for its winner (31).

Will this be the week for a young gun, or an old horse?

 

Matt S. Craig is a PGA.com intern and a Digital Sports Production student at Ball State University.