European Tour fortunes continued to prosper at Muirfield when no fewer than five Members, Thomas Björn, Sandy Lyle, Jean-Francois Remesy, Justin Rose and Des Smyth, moved into contention in the first round of the 131st Open Golf Championship, the quintet all carding three under par 68s to lie one shot behind Americans David Toms and Duffy Waldorf.
Lyle and Smyth, out in the first two groups of the day, took advantage of the benign and windless conditions on the East Lothian links to post their scores while Björn and Rose comfortably outshone their illustrious American playing partners, Björn four shots better than defending champion David Duval, while Rose outscored World Number One Tiger Woods by two.
Remesy, who only booked his place in the Open thanks to his tie for sixth place in The Barclays Scottish Open at Loch Lomond last week, took full advantage and looked set to lead on his own.
The 38 year old carded seven birdies in total through the first 17 holes of his round to stand at four under par for the tournament and in the outright lead. But a pushed drive into the deep rough at the last cost the Frenchman a bogey five and he joined the log-jam at three under par.
For a while it looked like Björn too might lead the first round on his own after opening with three birdies and covering the first 16 holes in four under par. But the Dane missed the green with his third shot at the 546 yard 17th before three putts gave him a bogey six. Björn had a chance to grab the lead again at the 18th but his birdie putt from ten feet spun out.
“I was really up for it this morning,” said Björn. “Three under after three gives you a relaxing feeling that you are playing well and the feeling that you can go on and perform. It was a bit up and down after that but I am pleased with my game and it was pretty good overall.”
Rose, alongside Woods and Maruyama, not surprisingly carried the bulk of the gallery and did not let the crowds down with an assured display. Birdies at the second and third preceded an eagle three at the ninth to see the 21 year old Englishman out in 32.
A drive into the rough cost the winner of the dunhill championship and the Victor Chandler British Masters a bogey at the tenth but some brave play on the inward half, including saving par from sand at the 15th and 16th, saw him not shed another shot.
“I knew it was going to be a big day for me and there would be a lot of attention on our group but I wanted to enjoy it which I did,” said Rose. “The fact I had a successful day out there was a bonus.
“I did want to play with Tiger, I wanted to relish the challenge, but I knew I couldn’t get too involved with what he was doing. It was a day to focus on my own game and I managed to do just that.
“I felt pretty calm all morning before I came to the course and on the range but as soon as I got onto the first tee my legs were a little bit wobbly. But I managed to get a good two iron tee shot away and when I made a par, that helped settle me down.”
Alongside Björn and Rose, Sandy Lyle and Des Smyth proved that age is no barrier to performance at Muirfield as they got The European Tour challenge for the 131st Open Golf Championship off to a superb start.
Lyle, the Champion at Royal St George’s in 1985, finished in style with three birdies in a row from the 16th while Smyth, the oldest winner in the history of The European Tour, recovered from a bogey five at the opening hole to be flawless thereafter, his birdies coming at the fifth, sixth, 11th and 17th.
Smyth, out in the very first group of the day, revealed he was relieved to be playing at all after falling asleep in his car on Tuesday after a long practice session and lying awkwardly, doing damage to his back.
“ I couldn’t practice at all on Wednesday so I just took a day off and rested but it doesn’t seem to have done me any harm,” said Smyth. “However the conditions are perfect, there was very little wind, which helped a lot but the secret here is definitely to stay out of the long grass.
“You are hitting a lot of two irons off tees because at the moment there is no need to take driver. But it is a fair test and if you play steady, patient golf you can make a score which is what I did.”
Lyle said: "I would have taken three pars to finish to be honest but to birdie them all was a little special, a little bonus and it certainly got the juices going. It is all about momentum building and my confidence is very good at the moment."
Further down the leader board, other European Tour Members to get their Major challenge off to a good start were Ian Garbutt, Padraig Harrington and Ian Poulter, who posted 69s, while Jose Coceres, Bradley Dredge, Ernie Els, Niclas Fasth and Paul Lawrie all opened with one under par 70s.
World Number One Tiger Woods struggled to read the pace of the Muirfield greens but admitted happy, nevertheless, with his opening 70.
“I hit a lot of lip-outs today but anything under par on this course is good,” said Woods. “It can be a little frustrating but if you keep hitting good putts the way I was doing, they will go in. If you can score four under par rounds in a Major, and especially here, then you’re doing okay.”
The American also had words of praise for Rose. He said: “Justin played well, hit a lot of good shots and managed his way around the course very well. He is a great kid and I enjoyed playing with him.”