SOUTHPORT, England — In the nascent moments of the 146th Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, a compelling theme turned up: England. Even as the Texan Jordan Spieth climbed to the top at 3-under par after his first nine holes, England splashed itself up and down the leader board in the gusting winds off the Irish Sea. It had the lead for spells at 2-under par in the form of the oft-forgotten Ian Poulter and the omnipresent Justin Rose.
Further, English youth barged in. The 22-year-old comer Matthew Fitzpatrick, ranked No. 40 in the world, lurked a shot behind for a while, and there was an early swell from the wonderfully monikered Alfie Plant, a 25-year-old from Bexleyheath, southeast of London, who plays with an enthusiastic posse and who won the European Amateur Championship three weeks ago in a donnybrook of a five-hole playoff. He was at 1-under-par after 10 holes, at noon local time (7 a.m. in the Eastern United States).
It called to mind a statistic that seems peculiar in totality: No Englishman has won the Open Championship since Nick Faldo in 1992, and no Englishman has won any of the nine Opens contended at Royal Birkdale.
You’re pretty much a stickler and maybe even a prude if you don’t call this an excellent age of English golf. The generation that includes Lee Westwood (age 44), Poulter (41), Paul Casey (39), Luke Donald (39), Rose (36) and Ross Fisher (36) has bunched itself onto leader boards for long enough that they look at home up there. The ensuing generation of Danny Willett (29), Andy Sullivan (31), Chris Wood (29), Fitzpatrick (22), Tyrrell Hatton (25) and nowadays Tommy Fleetwood (26) has helped ensure that England has crammed 12 players into the top 100, behind only the United States’ 46.
Two of those 12 players (Rose, Willett) have won majors. The performance timeline of Westwood, with his 18 top-10 finishes in majors, including six in the last eight Masters, without a win, is a case study in the wonder of sustained excellence combined with the horror of almost. Even at ranking No. 112 stands a famous Englishman, Andrew Johnston, the bearded one nicknamed “Beef.”
It’s a great lot of talent.
Yet the last 24 Opens have gone to the United States (13 times, three to the one-man nationality known as “Woods”), South Africa (thrice), Ireland (twice, both to Padraig Harrington), Australia (once), Zimbabwe (once), Sweden (once) and, most curiously, thrice to other flags that are part of the United Kingdom alongside England, but which compete under different flags in sports such as golf and soccer, and which have populations fractional to that of England. Those were Northern Ireland (Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Scotland (Paul Lawrie).
Of the nine Opens played at Birkdale, five have gone to Americans (Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller, Tom Watson, Mark O’Meara), two to an Australian (Peter Thomson) and one to Ireland’s Harrington.
Intensifying the England theme and the England yearning this week is Fleetwood, the golfer with the cooed-over, shoulder-length hair, who just finished fourth in the U.S. Open in Wisconsin in June, and who hails from Southport itself. So keen is the attachment here that if you have some daydream of sneaking onto Royal Birkdale, you might ask Fleetwood for advice.
A reporter did.
“You can’t sneak onto the places that we used to sneak on anymore,” he said. “The 5th was the place that used to be a lot more open, and it’s got fences and bushes there now, so that’s gone. You can’t even get on to watch the Open anymore. My dad now walks the dog, you start to the right of the 18th green, and you can walk all the way around past 17 at the back of the 16th green, eventually you get to a hillside and it’s all one great walk. It’s a very cool walk. You can try, but I wouldn’t recommend it.”
He ranks No. 14 in the world, No. 1 this season on the European PGA Tour at the moment, in its annual Race To Dubai, the season-closing championship.
Once things got started here Thursday in windy temperatures in the high 50s Fahrenheit, Poulter wielded what the BBC called a “glowing iron poker” of a putter, reaching 2-under par early. This burst came in his first major since the 2016 Masters, for a player who has eight top-10 finishes in majors but none since the 2015 Masters. With a foot injury troubling him in 2016, he began this 2016-17 season on a major medical extension, yet met points requirements to enter The Players Championship in May, when he finished tied for second, three shots off Si-Woo Kim’s win.
Rose’s strong early start also did a lot of evoking. It was here in 1998 that he materialized as a 17-year-old and struck a still-famous pitch shot on the 72nd hole to loose a mighty roar and finish fourth as an amateur. The 2013 U.S. Open champion went along nicely on Thursday until he had to take a penalty drop on the merciless, par-4, 499-yard No. 6, although he escaped from that beautifully onto the green. Two holes later, he had birdied himself back to 2-under.