SOUTHPORT: Dustin Johnson is aiming to show why he is ranked number one in the world and emerge from a field full of potential winners at the British Open, which got underway at Royal Birkdale on Thursday.
Johnson, 33, has not made an impression at the majors so far this year, missing the Masters with a back injury and missing the cut at the US Open, where he was the defending champion.
That makes it hard to say he is anything more than just another contender among many at Birkdale, the par-70 links in the town of Southport, on the Lancashire coast of north-west England.
“I feel like I play well over here. I like this kind of golf. You use a lot of imagination. You’ve got to use a lot of different shots. I really enjoy coming over here and playing,” said Johnson, who tees off at 2:48pm (1348 GMT) in his first round.
He goes out in an all-star group with 2011 Masters champion Charl Schwartzel of South Africa and world number four Rory McIlroy.
The Northern Irishman won the Open in 2014, not far from Birkdale at Royal Liverpool.
He has been in poor recent form, missing the cut at the Irish and Scottish Opens in the past fortnight, but he is hopeful of winning a fifth major and a second Claret Jug come Sunday.
If he can do that, it would mean a 10th different winner in 10 majors, although it would end a remarkable run of the last seven being won by first-time major winners.
“I hope it’s me at the end of the week that’s standing on the 18th green and getting the Claret Jug. But that is sort of where golf is at the moment. No one is really standing out and sort of taking it by the scruff of the neck,” said McIlroy on Wednesday.
The run of new major winners includes Sweden’s Henrik Stenson triumphing in the Open at Troon 12 months ago in a thrilling final-day duel with Phil Mickelson.
Organisers would settle for such a memorable climax this year, but picking a standout name is almost impossible.
Sergio Garcia comes with the Masters green jacket looking to keep the Claret Jug in Europe, while fellow Spaniard Jon Rahm and world number two Hideki Matsuyama of Japan are among those looking to break their major ducks.
World number three Jordan Spieth, who tees off at 9:47am alongside Stenson and South Korea’s Kim Si-Woo, is in good shape.
The view among the field is unanimous that Birkdale is one of the finest links courses of them all.
“I think the golf course is certainly a better test than St Andrews is,” said Spieth.
With just two par fives, at 15 and 17, it doesn’t play long, meaning many players might not even bother putting a driver in the bag.
But instead the onus is on craft and avoiding the many pitfalls, notably the 499-yard par-four sixth, a left-to-right dog-leg that was the hardest hole on the course the last time the Open came here in 2008.
Padraig Harrington won then, and is still the last player to successfully defend the Claret Jug.
He is 45 now, but recent years have shown that age is not really a barrier to succeeding in the Open.
“A lot of the younger guys are physically gifted, but they don’t have the experience with links golf. Assuming decent, tough enough conditions, it’s a tournament for experience,” Harrington said.
Wet, cool and breezy conditions, and enthusiastic crowds, greeted the first group of players to go out at 6:35am.
Mark O’Meara, winner at Birkdale in 1998 and now aged 60, had the honour of playing the first tee shot.
But he ended up taking three off the tee after going out of bounds to the right and started with a quadruple bogey eight.