Jack Nicklaus lived up to his star billing when he opened with a solid one under par 70 that put him within two shots of the leaders heading into the second round of the British Senior Open, presented by MasterCard, at Royal Co. Down GC in Northern Ireland.
Nicklaus, 61, the winner of 18 major titles, started his first-ever round in this championship with a spectacular eagle three on the 502-yard par-5 first hole and then recorded birdies on the 479-yard par-5 12th and the 276-yard par-4 16th to end the first day within two shots of South Africa's John Bland and England's Denis Durnian.
Scotland's Bernard Gallacher returned a two under par 69 to share third place with New Zealand's Bob Charles, Japan's Noboru Sugai, England's John Morgan and Welsh veteran Brian Huggett and veteran South African, Gary Player, also acquitted himself admirably with a solid 72 but it was a different story for England's Tony Jacklin and America's Arnold Palmer who both shot scores in the 80s and now seem almost certain to miss the cut.
"I suppose a 70 on the board is a pretty good score but I think I probably played a little bit better than that," said Nicklaus.
"I got the sort of start you like to have when I hit a good drive and a three iron to about 15 or 16 feet on the first and then made the putt but it was downhill after that.
"I had good chances on quite a few of the other holes on the front nine but I didn't make the putts.
"But I can't complain," he added philosophically. " When I walk home tonight and see 70 on the board in the first round of your Open I am sure I will think it's not a bad score. "
The Golden Bear will go into the second round two strokes behind South Africa's John Bland and England's Denis Durnian who both recorded three under par 68s in breezy conditions to share the lead at the end of the first round..
Bland came into this championship with a score to settle after posting three second place finishes in the last four years, including two runner-up spots behind Christy O'Connor Jnr, the winner in both 1999 and 2000. However, he has high hopes of going one better this year, particularly as O'Connor is absent after breaking his foot when his motorbike fell on him earlier this year.
The 55 year-old South African raced to the turn in four under par 31 after recording an eagle at the first and birdies at the 145-yard seventh and the 425-yard ninth but then dropped his only shot of the day on the treacherous 528-yard 18th hole.
"Christy beat me the last two years so I broke his foot and that took care of him," he joked.
"Seriously, I've played here three times and finished second three times so I think it owes me something.
"It's wonderful to see Jack (Nicklaus), Arnie (Palmer), Gary (Player), Bob (Charles), Tony (Jacklin) and Dave (Stockton) over here," he added. "It's good to see more Americans coming over. It's beginning to get bigger and bigger and I just hope that continues."
Durnian, winner of the richest first prize in European Seniors Tour history at the recent Wales Senior Open at Royal St David's, is currently one of the form player on the European Seniors Tour and he lived up to that billing when he recovered from being two over par after five holes with birdies on the seventh, 10th, 11th, 16th and 18th.
"I am delighted how things turned out after such a poor start," said Durnian. "For some reason, I was a bit shaky when I started out this morning but I settled down a bit once I birdied the seventh and from then on I played really well.
"Winning the Wales Seniors Open kicked started my season and I haven't looked back since," he added.
"I can now play knowing that I don't owe anybody any money. I am much more confident than I used to be and I think it shows."
Bernard Gallacher, who is still searching for his first victory on the European Seniors Tour, said he had Bernhard Langer and Ian Woosnam to thank for the solid 69 that put him in a share of third place. He watched the German and the Welshman use their broomhandle putters to good effect at Royal Lytham & St Annes and that persuaded him to switch to a similar club.
"I was inspired by Woosnam and Langer," he said. "They looked very comfortable on the green at Lytham and that persuaded me to give it another go.
"There's still a bit of a stigma surrounding using the long putter," he added. Last year when I used it I could hear people mumbling that I was a 'goner' but its nice way to putt so I thought I'd forget about that.
"It's a nice method. It encompasses all the correct fundamentals so I can't see what’s wrong."
The veteran South African, Gary Player, winner of the British Senior Open in 1988 and 1999, came into this event after a run of disappointing performances but still got round in a one over par 72 that included an eagle on the first and a birdie on the 16th. He goes into the second round in a share of 19th place and determined to make a challenge over the weekend.
"It was a pleasure to play my first decent eight holes for seven or eight weeks," he said. "I have been hitting the ball terribly but just after the turn I found something and that helped me to play much better coming home."
Player refused to disclose the swing change he had made but he suggested that it filled him with optimism for the future.
"It's very encouraging," he said. I have been practising so hard lately but going backward. But today was an awful lot better. I'm still very athletic. I am going to win a lot of golf tournaments."
It was a much more chastened Arnold Palmer who posted a 13-over par 84 that included nine bogeys and two double bogeys on the 194-yard par-3 fourth and the 425-yard par-4 eighth.
Palmer blamed lack of preparation for his performance and then indicated that he might not play competitive golf for much longer if his form did not start to improve.
"I enjoyed today and I enjoyed the golf course but I didn't enjoy my golf," he said. "It is difficult to come to a strange course and have just one day to pick up everything you need to know about it and it's particularly difficult when it's a course as difficult as this. That was remiss of me for even having tried to do it.
"But I will play tomorrow and I will enjoy it. The weather is fantastic, the golf course is fun and I like the challenge. I will see what I can muster tomorrow."
Palmer then admitted that it hurt to perform so poorly in front of such a supportive audience.
"It is terrible," he said. "That's the thing that bothers me most. Everything else is perfect. You couldn't beat the weather and the crowd was great.
"But it hurts when you play as poorly as this. That will eventually run me off."