A strategy for winning one of golf’s major championships only rarely looks like this: Find your flight canceled and the next one delayed, walk about a half-mile to passport control, endure a grinding wait at baggage claim less than 48 hours before the tournament’s first tee times and stare down jet lag.
It worked well enough for Stewart Cink on Thursday at the British Open.
“When the gun goes off and you start in the tournament, you’ve got that adrenaline, and adrenaline does wonders for your jet lag,” Cink, 50, said. It also seemed to do plenty good for his scorecard, which reported a three-under-par 68 that positioned him high on the first-round leaderboard at northwest England’s Royal Liverpool Golf Club.
It is forever a dangerous game to forecast a tournament’s fate after a single round, and it seemed particularly risky after the early going at Royal Liverpool, where the leaderboard’s top reaches blended old names and new ones and an army of formidable, familiar challengers lurked just below.
There was Cink, who won the 2009 Open at Turnberry in Scotland by outlasting Tom Watson, then 59, in a playoff. But Christo Lamprecht, an amateur who plays for Georgia Tech, finished his five-under round with the lead. Tommy Fleetwood, a past Open runner-up, and Emiliano Grillo, who birdied five of his last eight holes, matched Lamprecht later in the day, letting them begin Friday with one-stroke advantages over Brian Harman, Adrián Otaegui and Antoine Rozner.
Fleetwood, Grillo and Lamprecht had two-stroke leads over a group that included Cink and Wyndham Clark, the winner of last month’s U.S. Open.
Rory McIlroy, who won the British Open in 2014, when the tournament was last played at Royal Liverpool, finished at par, and Cameron Smith, looking to defend the title he won at St. Andrews in Scotland last summer, was one over.
With the weather at the course, known as Hoylake, expected to deteriorate during the tournament — the R&A’s chief executive, Martin Slumbers, listed the weekend’s options as “wet” or “very wet” — Thursday was perhaps the best chance for the 156-man field to make shots without diabolical complications. (The players certainly had better odds of shooting par or better than finishing one of the course’s soft-serve ice cream cones before seeing it melt into a sticky, spectacular mess.)
Fleetwood, who is from Southport, England, just 30 miles north, is a crowd favorite nearly everywhere but especially in Britain. On Thursday, he delivered the kind of sterling play that has lately eluded him early in the major championships. He had not finished below par in a major’s first round since the 2021 Open at Royal St. George’s, where he ultimately tied for 33rd.
“As first rounds go, that’s absolutely the one you wanted, and to get off to a good start feels good,” said Fleetwood, who struggled with early tees but left No. 5 emboldened by a birdie. He returned the stroke on the next hole, before picking it up again on the seventh. He birdied four holes on the back nine and started a streak of three at No. 14.
Lamprecht’s rise began sooner, with a birdie on the third hole. But it came only after a poor tee shot at No. 1 — when he felt probably his “only bit of nerves” all day, he said — that prompted a pep talk from Devin Stanton, his caddie and his assistant coach at Georgia Tech.
“Listen, you’re playing the Open as an amateur,” Lamprecht said Stanton told him. “No need to stress.”
Lamprecht, who at 6-foot-8 is among the tallest players ever to compete in the British Open, now being held for the 151st time, responded in force. He stumbled twice on the back nine but used four birdies within that stretch to finish at 66.
“I think the way I played today I earned to be on the top of the leaderboard, as of now,” Lamprecht, 22, said. “It’s not a cocky thing to say. I just personally think I believe in myself, and I guess stepping onto the first tee box if you’re a professional or a competitor, you should be believing that you should be the best standing there.”
Cink, a Georgia Tech alumnus who still uses the practice facility there, has gawked over Lamprecht’s talents, including his enormous power, and marveled again on Thursday afternoon.
“As a 50-year-old golfer seeing a guy like him, he is pretty much like your basic nightmare, watching a guy like him coming up,” Cink said on Thursday. “He can hit it like 330 in the air and he hits those little shots around the green so soft, it’s amazing. He’s got a lot of really good potential in front of him.”
Not that Cink was ready to cede the tournament to Lamprecht, not after a day when he almost entirely avoided Royal Liverpool’s 84 brutish bunkers. Their flatness, Cink observed, sends a momentum-loaded ball toward the lip, unimpeded by gravity. And despite his score, he did not regard Hoylake as particularly suited to his strengths.
“But playing smart and being disciplined and patient and keeping your heart in the right place, that fits my game,” said Cink, who turned 50 in May and has been mulling whether to play more events on the PGA Tour Champions, as the senior tour is known these days.
“It’s required on courses like this, and it comes down to execution,” said Cink, whose wife, Lisa, is his caddie this week. “Today I executed very well, and it was pretty evident in the scorecard. It was a nice clean day. Putted well from inside eight feet. That’s the kind of stuff you have to do in a major.”
The cut, set at the top 70 plus ties, is expected Friday night. Headed into the second round, the past major winners Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas were all in danger of seeing their ambitions of winning the claret jug end quickly. Thomas, who won the 2017 and 2022 P.G.A. Championships, shot 11 over on Thursday, putting him in a tie for 153rd.
But some other major champions, including Brooks Koepka, Hideki Matsuyama and Scottie Scheffler, were only four strokes off the lead, laying the groundwork for a jostle toward the top.
Cink insisted Thursday that the tournament was hardly the exclusive dominion of the game’s younger players. Two years ago, he noted, Phil Mickelson won the P.G.A. Championship at 50, and then there was Watson’s for-the-ages performance in 2009.
“I have no doubts that I can win this,” Cink said. “It’s going to take a lot. It’s going to take some really, really exceptional play on my behalf, but it’s in there.”
Indeed, even a player as preternaturally confident as Clark —last month he said that his May victory at the Wells Fargo Championship had (correctly) persuaded him that he was good enough to win a major — noted the rigors of a tournament like this one.
“This is just Day 1,” Clark said. “Got three more days.”