Two-time Open champion Greg Norman turned back the years with a masterful performance in difficult conditions on the first day at Royal Birkdale that left him fending off talk of an unlikely third triumph.
The Australian, 53, who has not played regular competitive golf for several years, carded a level-par round of 70 to finish a day littered with high scores just one shot off the lead.
Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell, who won last week’s Scottish Open at Loch Lomond, continued his fine form with a one under-par 69 for a three way share of the lead. He was joined on one under by American Rocco Mediate, who shot to prominence by taking Tiger Woods to a play-off at last month’s US Open, and Australian Robert Allenby
But it was Norman, in the absence of injured world No1 Woods, who provided the story of the day.
The Great White Shark, whose only Major wins came at Turnberry in 1986 and Sandwich in 1993, found himself back in the spotlight, but, playing in only his fourth tournament this year, refused to entertain thoughts of a third Open title.
“I have to keep my expectations realistically low,” Norman said. “People say it’s like riding a bike but even doing that after a while you’re a little wobbly.”
Asked if he could win, Norman replied: “I’m not even going to get my head in that position. If I give myself a chance at the end of the tournament, then you start thinking about it. But you don’t on a Thursday afternoon.”
World No3 Adam Scott matched compatriot Norman’s 70, as did unheralded American Bart Bryant. Simon Wakefield was the best performing Englishman, finishing among a clutch of players on one over par, including South Africa’s Retief Goosen and American Jim Furyk.
Defending champion Padraig Harrington overcame a wrist injury and torrid early weather conditions to card a 74, while the man he beat in last year’s play-off at Carnoustie, Spain’s Sergio Garcia, stayed in touch with a 72.
Among the big names to flounder in the wind and rain were world No2 Phil Mickelson, who shot a 79, and Ernie Els, whose 10-over-par 80 was matched by Vijay Singh.
Paul Casey fared little better, with a 78, leaving British hopes resting on Wakefield, Ian Poulter (72), Ross Fisher (72), Colin Montgomerie (73), Justin Rose (74) and Lee Westwood (75).
Conditions improved markedly as the day wore on, and those who struggled on the blustery links were quick to blame the weather.
“It was miserable, miserable, miserable,” said Singh, while the more successful Poulter called it “brutal” and Goosen admitted it had been “a bit of a battle”.
Norman considered it “an equaliser”, while Mediate could afford to see it as “fun and insane. It was just survival and by no means pretty.”
Harrington, having barely practised due to injury, was content to still be in sight of the leaders. He said: “The injury should be better again tomorrow so I’m quite happy.”