SANDWICH – Andy Sullivan was among the last to make the field at the British Open and part of the first group out when play began Thursday.
He’s not wasting any time at Royal St. George’s. Neither are some of his countrymen.
Part of a strong early showing by English golfers on home soil, Sullivan rolled in a 30-foot birdie putt at No. 1 after teeing off at 6:35 a.m. local time and closed with a birdie for a 3-under 67.
Justin Rose and Danny Willett were also on that number, three strokes off the lead held by Louis Oosthuizen and fronting the English charge to be the nation’s first Open champion since Nick Faldo at Muirfield in 1992.
Not since Tony Jacklin in 1969 has an English player won the Open in England.
“Right now,” Rose said, “I think it’s probably as strong a chance as we’ve had. Maybe even ever.”
Sullivan, ranked No. 85, found out he would be in the field only on Friday, while he was playing at the Scottish Open. He replaced Matthew Wolff, the 54-hole leader at the U.S. Open last year at Winged Foot, who chose not to play.
Sullivan had been way down the reserve list but, one by one, there were withdrawals for various reasons, some of them related to COVID-19.
“I didn’t know I was even close to being a reserve,” he said.
Then he was placed in the opening group of the first round alongside two more Englishmen in Marcus Armitage and Richard Bland, who had the honor of hitting the first shot.
The stand surrounding the first tee was almost full and the gallery to the right of the tee was three rows deep as Bland, clearly nervous and taking more time than normal, got the Open under way with a drive that landed on the fairway and dribbled off to the left.
“It was very special, very nerve-wracking,” said Bland, who shot 70 and is coming off a season where he finally won a title on the European Tour in the 478th tournament of his professional career.
“I was OK when I got onto the tee. A little bit nervous because you’re just about to start a major championship. But then once the announcer said, ‘Right, it’s 30 seconds guys,’ you’re like, this is it. This is what it’s all about.”
Sullivan enjoyed being up before everyone else.
“It’s probably the one event of the year where you actually don’t mind getting up early,” Sullivan said. “For other events, you sort of drag yourself out of bed. … Today actually wasn’t too bad.
“You’ve always got a buzz to come and play the Open.”
Holing a double-breaker for birdie on No. 1 was the highlight of Rose's round that was played in the company of top-ranked Dustin Johnson. Rose was bogey-free, with which he was impressed around what he described as a “gnarly course" where he has previously missed the cut (2003) and tied for 44th (2011).
"We’ve all grown up playing lots of links golf, to be honest with you, and it should be a style of golf that we all relish," Rose said of the English contingent, of whom the highest ranked is No. 10 Tyrrell Hatton. “Hopefully, Royal St. George’s with the St. George’s cross is kind of a lucky omen this week.”
Paul Casey was another Englishman starting well, signing for a 68 that also didn't include a dropped shot. In majors in 2021, he has tied for seventh at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines last month and tied for fourth at the PGA Championship in May.
Casey made 15 straight pars after making a 4-foot putt for birdie at No. 3.
“The desire is still there,” he said. “I haven’t won one. I desperately want to, but I don’t feel like that’s adding pressure. I just feel excitement every time. It’s like an opportunity.”
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