Greg Norman, winner of the Open Golf Championship on its last visit to Royal St George’s in 1993, turned the clock back as he opened his 2003 campaign with a two under par 69, a bogey on the last costing him a share of the first round lead held by Challenge Tour Member Hennie Otto.
With early rain and a strong wind sweeping across the magnificent Royal St George’s Golf Club throughout the day, only five players finished under par with Otto leading the way, ahead of Norman and Davis Love III with Fredrik Jacobson and South Korean SK Ho a further shot back on one under par.
Indeed it was a good opening day for European Tour Members with three occupying position in the top five and six in the top 12.
Otto, making his Open Golf Championship debut, teed off in the first group at 6.30am and shot a fine three under par 68 for the others to chase but ultimately it proved good enough to lead through the whole day.
Norman’s victory in 1993 has been heralded as one of the greatest in Open Golf Championship history, his final round 64 displaying his swashbuckling golf at its best as he stormed ahead of Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer. In claiming the Claret Jug for a second time, following his victory in 1986, he also became the first player to win with four sub-70 rounds and his 72 hole aggregate of 267 remains the lowest in the 132 years of the Open Golf Championship.
Ten years on he was once again delighting his legions of fans with some outstanding golf on a testing day at Royal St George’s, marked by early rain and winds. The highlight of his round was undoubtedly a magnificent eagle three on the fourth hole after his four iron bump and run shot came to rest within a couple of feet of the hole. That took the Great White Shark, playing only his fourth event of the year, to three under par after the 48 year old got off to the perfect start with a birdie on the opening hole.
Out in 33, Norman moved to four under par and into the outright lead with another outstanding four iron, this time on the 242 yard 11th hole. His first dropped shot came at the 14th but it was not until the last that he finally let the lead slip out of his grasp. Having missed the green on the right, Norman blasted out of the thick rough to eight feet but his par putt slipped by the hole.
"I'm very happy with that round," said Norman, an Honorary Member of The European Tour. "Considering this is my fourth tournament for the year, I felt very comfortable and satisfied. My practice sessions have been going very, very well and obviously winning here is a great confidence booster.
"Coming over here, my desires were high and I was very excited about playing because links golf excites me. I enjoy it. I enjoy hitting the ball on the ground and I enjoy hitting the putter from ten yards off the green."
Norman’s dropped shot on the last put him in a tie with 1997 US PGA Champion Love III with Otto standing alone at the top of the leaderboard on three under par 68.
The 27 year old, who led Final Qualifying at North Foreland with rounds of 65 and 63, bogeyed the par three third and the last but picked up five shots in between.
Otto has been in prime putting form in recent weeks, and holed birdie putts from 30 feet at both the 12th and 13th holes.
"I really putted well at North Foreland in Final Qualifying to shoot those scores and my putter worked well for me again today," said the South African, who won the Tour Championship in South Africa at the start of the year.
"At the beginning of the season, I played really well but then my form fell away. The last couple of weeks I've been working hard with Pete Cowen to try and get my game back to standard. So far, it seems to be working well."
One of the finest rounds of the day came from Jacobson, the Swede carding a one under par 70 without dropping a shot in the worst of the conditions during the middle of the day.
Jacobson has enjoyed plenty of success this season, winning twice on The European Tour International Schedule with victories in the Omega Hong Kong Open and the Algarve Portuguese Open. Last month he finished joint highest European in the US Open Championship in a share of fifth place at Olympia Fields GC and since then has preformed with distinction on the US PGA Tour.
“This is a very difficult course and things can change in a minute out there,” said the 28 year old. “One bad shot or if you get a little unlucky you can lose a couple of shots quickly. I am happy with what I achieved today. I didn’t drop a single shot in 18 holes and if you can do that one day it is a bonus.”
Asked the secret to not dropping a shot, Jacobson replied: “It is all about scrambling around the greens. You are not able to hit all these greens and you will have a lot of chip shots or bunker shots where it is important to get up and down. Today was an important day and I felt I did well mentally on the course. Hopefully I can maintain that for the week.”
There were also commendable performances from two of the main figures in last year’s Open Golf Championship at Muirfield, Gary Evans and Thomas Levet, both of whom joined the group on level par 71. Evans missed out on the play-off last year by a single shot after a roller-coaster of a round that included losing his ball on the 17th before holing a massive putt across the green to save his par while Levet went on better to make the four man play-off. After the four hole play-off he was still level with Ernie Els but the South African finally won the title in sudden-death.
The defending champion himself struggled to find any touch with his putter as he shot an opening 78, seven over par, without a birdie and needs to find something special if he is to retain the title this year.
“I felt very uncomfortable with the putter,” said Els. “The wind was gusting and it was difficult to balance. It was a very difficult day. The pin positions were tough and it was hard to get close to the hole. If I want to get back into this championship I need to do something special. I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
World Number One Tiger Woods got off to the worst possible start when he lost his opening tee shot on his way to a triple bogey seven. His fortunes took a further dip with three bogeys in a row after the turn before two fighting birdies at the 15th and 16th holes helped him to two over par 73, five behind Otto and still very much in the thick of things.
Meanwhile Colin Montgomerie was forced to retire from the Open Golf Championship after ten holes after injuring his hand in a fall in his hotel room early this morning.
“I was heading to breakfast to meet my coach and was looking at the rain when I tripped over a step and fell nastily, breaking the fall with my right hand. I got to the stage when I was going to practice and give this a go. If it was not the Open I don’t think I would have played at all. I started with a couple of bogeys and just couldn’t get through the ball. I had no authority through the ball. It is one of those things.”