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Originally published July 18, 2013 at 9:22 PM | Page modified July 19, 2013 at 11:20 AM

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Zach Johnson leads at ‘crusty’ British Open course

A glaring sun made for harsh conditions at Muirfield, especially for the afternoon wave of players.

The New York Times

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GULLANE, Scotland — The sun beat down on Muirfield, and a generation of golfers raised on all the newfangled technology did not quite know how to cope. Several of the younger players in the British Open field reacted Thursday as if they were at Gullane Beach and their electronic tablets had been rendered useless by the glare.

Some in the under-40 set complained about how the baked greens were impossible to read, and how their melon-headed drivers were useless on a course made firm and fast by the sun.

But a few players who grew up untethered to the latest technology concocted their stories the old-fashioned way: They used their imaginations.

Take Mark O’Meara, who won the British Open in 1998 for the last of his 16 PGA Tour victories. At 56, he has not basked in victory’s glow since winning twice on the Champions Tour in 2010.

Playing Muirfield in the afternoon, when the course was at its firmest and fastest, O’Meara posted a 4-under 67, which tied him for second with Rafael Cabrera-Bello. They are one stroke off the score posted by Zach Johnson, who teed off in the morning. In a group in fourth place, two shots behind Johnson, were 54-year-old Tom Lehman, who won the 1996 British Open, and 49-year-old Miguel Angel Jimenez.

“Links golf is not just about power, where a lot of the game today is about bombs away and hit the ball a long way and play it up in the air,” O’Meara said. “Links golf is about creativity, shot process, thinking about where you need to land the ball.”

Tiger Woods, who became like a younger brother to O’Meara in the late 1990s when they were neighbors in Florida, played in the afternoon and overcame a shaky start to post a 2-under 69.

“Tiger played phenomenally well for his 2 under par,” said Graeme McDowell, who carded a 75 while playing in Woods’ group. (The third player in the group, Louis Oosthuizen, a former British Open champion, withdrew on the ninth hole when a neck injury flared and the pain spread to his hips.)

As the afternoon wore on, the greens became “crusty around the hole,” McDowell said, adding, “If you got on the wrong side of them, they could make you look very, very silly.”

Phil Mickelson, one of the pretournament favorites, teed off in the morning and posted a 69 that included a three-putt from the wrong side of the hole on No. 18.

“I got very lucky to play early today because as the day wore on and we got to the back nine, about a third of every green started to die and became brown,” Mickelson said. “And the pins were very edgy, on the slopes and whatnot, so the guys that played early had a huge, huge break.”

After carding a 72 in the morning, Ian Poulter tweeted that the 18th green “needs a windmill and clown face.” His fellow Englishman Lee Westwood, who posted a 72 in the afternoon, was asked about the pins and drolly replied, “They’re on the greens.”

The afternoon wave of players averaged nearly two strokes higher than those who teed off in the morning.

Mickelson said he did not find it fair that one wave ended up at such a decided disadvantage because of conditions that, unlike capricious weather, could be controlled by the R&A, which runs the tournament.

“You’ve got to let go of your ego sometimes and just set the course up the way the best players can win,” Mickelson said, referring to the R&A.

Responding to the criticism, Peter Dawson, the chief executive of the R&A, said, “We set up the golf course to test the players’ course management strategy, I think, as much as anything.”

Mickelson’s tee time was not his only lucky break. On the fifth hole, his drive landed in heather to the right of the fairway, but the ball was sitting up like a poached egg on hash browns.

He could not have dropped it in the grass any better, but he nearly had to try. Before Mickelson reached his ball, a cart carrying television personnel came close to driving over it and a man with a credential around his neck almost stepped on it.

Mickelson was not surprised.

“We got run over a couple of times walking down the middle of the fairway by people,” he said, laughing.

He was half-joking. On the par-3 seventh, there were 28 people with photography or television credentials walking or riding behind the group of Mickelson, Rory McIlroy and Hideki Matsuyama. Most of the news media group were from Japan, following the 21-year-old Matsuyama, who has been a pro for less than five months but is the top-ranked Asian player.

Matsuyama hit 14 greens and finished strongly, with birdies on the baked greens at Nos. 17 and 18, en route to a 71. After signing his score card, Matsuyama was led to the interview area. He was shooed away by European reporters waiting to hear from McIlroy after his 79.

The beauty of links golf is that the unpredictable bounces and seaside winds make it a game of patience, not perfection. McIlroy, 24, spoke earlier in the week of letting go of his swing thoughts and letting his imagination be his guide.

But Thursday, as his sloppy mistakes piled up like a multicar wreck, McIlroy began pressing and ended up compounding his mistakes.

“I just need to concentrate, obviously,” said McIlroy, who found five fairways. “But sometimes I feel like I’m walking around out there and I’m unconscious.”

Ryan Moore of Puyallup finished the day tied for 27th with a 1-over 72. Seattle native Fred Couples shot a 75, while Kyle Stanley of Gig Harbor shot an 82.

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