Thomas Bjorn and Tom Lewis have nothing in common except for the unlikely position they shared Thursday atop the leaderboard at the British Open at Sandwich, England.
It’s not just that one is twice as old.
Or that Bjorn is a 40-year-old pro who wonders how much longer he can compete at the highest level, while Lewis is an amateur making his major championship debut, his best golf still to come.
The biggest difference are their memories of Royal St. George’s.
Bjorn took a small step toward atonement with a birdie on the par-3 16th — the hole that cost him the claret jug in 2003 when he took three shots to escape a pot bunker — on his way to a 5-under 65 in the toughest conditions of the opening round.
He made a birdie on Thursday, and couldn’t help but smile when he saw it bounce away from trouble and toward the flag.
“When I hit the shot, I thought, ’This is going to struggle.’ So when it just made it over that bunker, that was just a smile of knowing that things were going my way today,” Bjorn said.
Lewis ran off four straight birdies late in his round, an amazing stretch that began on the par-5 14th. That’s the hole where Lewis wrapped up the British Boys Amateur Championship two years ago, the highlight of a sterling amateur record. A par on the final hole gave him a 65, the lowest ever by an amateur in the British Open, making him the first amateur to lead this championship in 43 years.
“It was a special moment for me, winning here, and to come back to where you’ve won is extra special,” Lewis said. “I was just thrilled to be here, but to shoot 65 the first round was something I wouldn’t have thought. I was just happy to get the drive off the tee at the first, and that was all that mattered.”
Adding to the nerves was playing alongside Tom Watson, such a popular figure in the Lewis household that they named their oldest son after the five-time Open champion. And to think the kid only wanted to make sure he didn’t embarrass himself in front of Watson.
“He could be my grandson,” Watson said. “I just had to smile inside to watch him play. I didn’t play particularly well myself, but I certainly was impressed by the way he played.”
Equally impressive to Watson was to overhear Lewis’ caddie tell him there were still 54 holes left.
But what a start.
Bjorn wasn’t even in the tournament until Vijay Singh withdrew on Monday, giving the Dane another shot at Royal St. George’s. When someone suggested if he would be better off not playing to avoid memories of his meltdown, Bjorn cut him off.
“A couple of people asked me that question, ’Would you not just want to go home?”’ Bjorn said. “This is The Open Championship. Where else do you want to be?”
Miguel Angel Jimenez also played in the windy morning conditions and had a bogey-free 66. He was joined later in the round by former U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover and Webb Simpson.
A dozen players were at 68, a group that two major champions from last year — PGA winner Martin Kaymer and U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, who was 3 over through five holes until a ferocious rally.
It was vintage links golf along the Strait of Dover, where the seaside wind can be as fickle as the bounces on rolling turf of Royal St. George’s. Flags that were crackling throughout the morning when Bjorn and Jimenez faced cold conditions and a spot of rain were only rippling when Lewis teed off in the afternoon, and they were drooping when the round ended.
The change was reflected in the scores.
Rory McIlroy, coming off an eight-shot victory in the U.S. Open that made the 22-year-old the centerpiece of this major, rallied from a sloppy start for a 1-over 71, and he had no complaints.
“Anywhere around even par is a good start,” McIlroy said.
It didn’t feel that way toward the end of a long day.
The morning half of the draw were a combined 223-over par. The afternoon half combined to go only 94-over par. There were a dozen rounds in the 60s in the morning, and 23 in the afternoon.
“Looks like the wind gods are having an afternoon tea?” came a tweet from John Daly, who was proud of his 72 in the morning.
The calmer conditions are expected for Friday morning when Lewis goes out for his second round, with the wind shifting and becoming more fierce in the afternoon. That figures to only help Lewis, Glover and those who got the late-early portion of the tee times.
Lewis figures he has other advantages.
He has been around golf all of his life — his father once played the European Tour — and he really feels at home on links courses. The Royal & Ancients tends to play its championships for amateurs on the seaside courses, and Lewis has played only links this summer except for one tournament.
“We’re used to the wind,” Lewis said. “Watching it on the TV this morning, I didn’t think scores would be as low as they are. But the wind dropped, and that was the opportunity to shoot a good score. And I’m thankful I did play well.”
Far more impressive was Bjorn, because of the conditions and his history on this ancient turf. Players stuck their hands in the pocket to fight the chill, the wind and occasional rain. Bjorn also made his move on the 14th, making back-to-back birdies.
And then came the par-3 16th.
It was his first time on that hole in competition since that dreadful Sunday afternoon in 2003. Eight years later, the difference was the day of the week — and what was riding on it. Just like then, he had a two-shot lead in the British Open. His tee shot had him concerned as it drifted in the blustery wind toward one of the seven bunkers guarding the green.
The ball barely cleared a bunker, hopped onto the green and trundled toward the hole.
“That gives you the trust and belief that sometimes things can turn out your way, and it does that in links golf,” Bjorn said. “We all know what its’ like — a bounce here or there and then it goes either wrong or right. And today it went my way.”
But he was dismissive when it was suggested that hole — and this course — owes him something.
“This hole owes nobody anything,” Bjorn said. “No hole in golf does, and no golf course does. I played that Open and I played fantastic the whole week. I tried to hit the right shot every single time, and I didn’t hit the right shot on 16. That happens in golf. That’s the nature of this game. You’ve just got to deal with them things.”
He has coped as well as can be expected, even if no one believes him. Bjorn had a tough time when he returned to the British Open the following year at Royal Troon, then moved on. A year later, in the 2005 PGA Championship at Baltusrol, he was tied for the lead and poised for a playoff until Phil Mickelson birdied the final hole to win. That at least told Bjorn he could still contend.
Thursday was another reminder, although he is not sure how long it will last.
That holds true for Lewis, the English amateur who is advancing quicker than he could imagine. He poured in a 20-foot birdie putt on the 17th for his last birdie, and was so locked into what he was doing that he didn’t take time to glance at the yellow scoreboard atop the grandstand, or even wait for Watson to walk first onto the 18th green, a tradition reserved for the most respected players in the game.
Either way, they were cheering for Tom.