ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — The Old Course was never faster. The pace of play was never slower.
The celebrated start Thursday of the 150th Open Championship gave way to Cameron Young making his debut with an 8-under 64 for a two-shot lead over Rory McIlroy.
Young and McIlroy didn’t have to contend with as much wind in the morning, though St. Andrews has seen far stronger gusts over its centuries of golf. Throw in the humps and mounds and difficult pin positions, and the Old Course held its own.
“It’s the fiddliest Open that I’ve played. It’s the only way I can really describe it,” McIlroy said. “OK, the 18th at Carnoustie was like a runway, that fairway. But around the greens here and just all the slopes and undulations and everything, I think as the tournament progresses, you’re going to get some funny bounces and it’s going to test your patience at times.”
Nothing tested the patience like the constant waiting. By late afternoon, the rounds were taking just over six hours. They waited on the tee and in the fairway, and it didn’t help with so many players looking for the best angles to tight pins and playing to the left into other fairways.
Tiger Woods, who also missed the cut in the last Open at St. Andrews in 2015, had the second-worst score in his Open career with a 78.
“It’s the way the golf course is set up. It’s how firm it is,” U.S. Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick said after his 72. “The way the golf course is designed … to get better angles and better lines, you’ve got to hit across all the fairways. There’s nothing you can do unfortunately about it. It’s just sad more than anything. It’s just ridiculous.”
Good scores were available, and 54 players broke par, 26 of them with rounds in the 60s.
Young was a surprise leader only because it’s his first time competing on an Open links. He has had one of the better rookie seasons on the PGA Tour, and the 25-year-old New Yorker is not the least bit daunted by the stage. Just two months ago, he contended into the final hour of the PGA Championship until finishing one shot out of a playoff.
Young played smartly and took advantage of the birdie chances. He reached 7 under through 12 holes with the wind helping on the inward nine. He missed two good chances, finished with a birdie and most importantly kept bogeys off his card.
“I don’t think that I played a perfect round of golf,” Young said. “I scored really well. And I think we thought our way around the way you have to out there.”
Young figures he knows only a fraction of the secrets to Old Course — no one ever really figures it all out with so many conditions on the ground and in the air — and there was one occasion on the par-5 fifth when he looked at his note in the yardage book: “Hard left is better than right.” He went left and made birdie.
“We did stuff like that a few times today,” Young said.
Players Championship winner Cameron Smith and English qualifier Robert Dinwiddie each had a 67. Dinwiddie had the best score of the afternoon, when the wind was at its strongest. The large group at 66 included Masters champion Scottie Scheffler, Dustin Johnson and even Barclay Brown, the English amateur who plays at Stanford.
Xander Schauffele, coming off his second straight win last week, was in the group a 69.
Scheffler tried to explain just how fast the links were playing by suggesting the ball was rolling faster on the fairways than on the greens. Then he realized that actually was the case. It gets that way at St. Andrews when the ground is crispy and the Open comes to the gray, old town.
“I’m glad I’m not losing my mind,” Scheffler said.
McIlroy looked free as ever at St. Andrews, his first time back for the Open since 2010. His game is in good shape, and he piled up five birdies through 12 holes, with only one careless play that led to his lone bogey on the 13th.
“Fantastic start. Just what you hope will happen when you’re starting off your week,” McIlroy said. “I did everything that you’re supposed to do around St. Andrews.”
Then again, good starts are nothing new this year. He led the PGA Championship after 18 holes and was one shot behind after the first round of the U.S. Open. Both times, he couldn’t hold it together until he had fallen too far behind to catch up.
“I need to go out tomorrow and back up what I just did today,” he said.
Defending champion Collin Morikawa struggled with his putting and had a 72. Morikawa knew how long of a day he was in for when there was a group on the fifth tee, and the group ahead was just starting to walk toward the fairway.
“Xander and I talked about it. We’re watching more golf than we ever have,” said Morikawa, referring to how both rarely watch on TV. “You stay in the fairway and you’re watching two other groups play golf.”