ST. ANDREWS, Scotland (AP) — Jordan Spieth wasted no time seizing a rare opportunity to chase a Grand Slam, opening with six birdies in 11 holes at St. Andrews and keeping his name high on the leaderboard Thursday in the British Open.
And so did a familiar foe — Dustin Johnson.
Eight times zones and an ocean away from Chambers Bay, Johnson and Spieth picked up where they left off a month ago when Spieth beat him by one shot in the U.S. Open to capture the second leg of the Grand Slam. On this day, Johnson got the better of him with a 7-under 65 and looked like the player to beat at St. Andrews.
He overpowered the Old Course with such a blend of power and accuracy that Johnson hit wedge into all but three of the 14 par 4s. Three of them were into the wind. The other was No. 9, where he putted from just off the green.
Johnson had a one-shot lead over six players, including former British Open champion Paul Lawrie, two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen and Jason Day, playing for the first time since coping with symptoms of vertigo at the U.S. Open. Zach Johnson and Danny Willett played in the afternoon as the wind strengthened, making their 66s even more impressive.
Spieth and Louis Oosthuizen, who won the last time the Open was at St. Andrews, were among those two shots back at 67.
Thursday morning was suited for scoring, so it was critical Johnson, Spieth and all the other early starters post a low score.
“Everybody knows the weather Friday and Saturday is going to be very difficult, so today I thought was very important to get off to a good start and try to make as many birdies as you can,” Johnson said. “Because the next couple days, it’s going to be very difficult.”
It was every bit of that for Tiger Woods.
A two-time Open champion on these links, Woods hit into the Swilcan Burn on the first hole, didn’t make a birdie until the 14th hole and had to scramble to salvage a 76, his worst score in 13 rounds as a pro at St. Andrews. He was tied with 65-year-old Tom Watson, who had a 76 in his final British Open.
The buzz came from the top of the leaderboard, especially with Johnson and Spieth making this feel like the U.S. Open, except for the location and green color of grass.
Spieth opened with two straight birdies and looked as solid as ever with the putter. Johnson also converted putts after wedges into so many greens for birdie, along with a 7-iron into 10 feet on the par-5 fifth hole for eagle.
They are playing together for the opening two rounds, and they laughed and chatted as if this were Thursday at a regular PGA Tour event.
“No chat about the U.S. Open at all, as I wouldn’t imagine there would be, other than talking about the differences in the course,” Spieth said. “But I enjoy playing with Dustin. I’ve played a lot of golf with him.”
He also knows what to expect. Johnson is among the most athletic players in golf, and the most powerful. He was dialed in at Chambers Bay, and it appeared as though the three weeks he spent away from competition didn’t hurt him in the least. Spieth was along for the ride when Johnson stayed on the attack, often hitting it some 50 yards past Spieth and Matsuyama. Along with five birdies and an eagle, Johnson saved par from 10 feet and 15 feet on the 16th and 17th holes as the wind gained strength.
“If D.J. keeps driving it the way he is, then I’m going to have to play my best golf to have a chance,” Spieth said.
Spieth managed just fine with great iron play and the putting that makes him the envy of golf at the moment. He now has made 53 birdies in nine rounds at the majors this year, an average of roughly one birdie every three holes.
So it was peculiar when one reporter asked Spieth if he thought he could beat Johnson — which he just did a month ago at the U.S. Open.
“I’ve played enough golf with him to where I believe in my skill set, that I can still trump that crazy ability that he has,” Spieth said. “I expect when he stands on the tee it’s going to up there miles and down the fairway. I also expect that I can birdie each hole when I stand on the tee — it just happens to be a different route.”
Not many can appreciate the route Spieth is taking. Only five other players dating to the creation of the Masters in 1934 have won the first two majors of the year. Only the late Ben Hogan can claim the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open in the same year. No one has won all four.
The key for Spieth was to stay close, and that’s what he did — not in driving distance, but by score, which ultimately is all that matters.