Johnson Sets Pace at Open Championship; McIlroy Shoots 79

Zach Johnson got off to a rousing start in the Open Championship Thursday. The 37-year-old from Iowa fired a 5-under 66 at Muirfield in the 142nd playing of golf's oldest tournament.

Johnson, who lost in a sudden-death playoff to Texas teenager Jordan Spieth in last week's John Deere Classic, carded four birdies, an eagle on the par-5 fifth hole and a bogey for an early one-stroke lead over Spaniard Rafael Cabrera-Bello and 1998 British Open champion Mark O'Meara.

Johnson also got off to a hot start in the 2012 Open Championship, firing a 65 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, one stroke off Adam Scott's opening 64. Johnson ended up in a tie for seventh at 280, while Scott bogeyed the final four holes to lose the Claret Jug to Ernie Els.

"I don't know what the secret is," Johnson told reporters of his fast starts in two straight years. "I hit some nice shots and obviously I putted really, really well."

Americans Dustin Johnson, Brandt Snedeker and 1996 Open champion Tom Lehman - along with Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez - each shot 68s, while fellow Yank Phil Mickelson - who won last week's Scottish Open at Castle Stuart - had a 69. Also posting that number were 2004 British Open champion Todd Hamilton, Spieth and Argentina's Angel Cabrera.

"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, who thought Muirfield was "beyond difficult."

Added the four-time major champion, "I love the fact that I shot under par, because it's a very challenging course out there. I don't expect anybody to beat the lead from the morning wave, I just don't think it's possible."

Hamilton was another player who performed well early. "If the wind stays like it is, it's really not too difficult," said the 47-year-old from Illinois. "If you can take advantage of the par-5s and throw some other birdies in, and stay away from the high numbers, I think somebody is going to shoot a good score."

Two players didn't take advantage of the conditions Thursday morning: No. 2-ranked Rory McIlroy and six-time major winner Nick Faldo, who's playing his first competitive round in three years. Both players posted 8-over 79s.

McIlroy, a two-time major champion whose last victory came in November in Dubai, had a desultory outing, carding only two birdies, six bogeys and two doubles; the same marks on Faldo's scorecard (though on different holes).

"I wish I could stand here and tell you guys what's wrong and how to make it right," a frustrated McIlroy told reporters. "I don't know what you can do. You just have to try and play your way out. Sometimes I feel like I'm walking out there and I'm unconscious."

In recent days Faldo has been critical of McIlroy, saying this week that the 24-year-old Northern Irishman currently lacked focus. "Once your concentration goes - you need 100 percent concentration, off the golf course, practicing, as well. Most ideal I can think is to go to the club, 9:00 in the morning, hit balls all day long, and you leave at 5:00. And you think that was cool, that was great, what a lovely day I had. You've been really productive," the CBS golf analyst said Tuesday.

Faldo's opening-round performance was likely tied to rust; his most recent competitive round came in 2010 in the Open Championship at St. Andrews, where an 81 on a windy Friday caused him to miss the cut; he's played just 36 rounds of golf anywhere in three years.

Despite his travails, Faldo enjoyed his outing at Muirfield, the Scottish links where he picked up two of his three Claret Jugs. "I was enjoying it. That view standing on the first tee with the crowd and the people in the stands and everything - I'll take that one as my shot of the day.

"It's giving me a lot more ideas (about playing) - like none," Faldo added. "You won't be seeing me next year, no way. I'm not saying that's it, but who knows? St Andrews is my next port of call (in 2015) - if I want to. I've got to pace myself. This is one tournament in the last three years. Steady on. One in a row."

After his round Faldo, who turned 56 Thursday, also downplayed any rift with McIlroy, who bristled at repeated questions in his Wednesday press conference about Faldo's candid observations.

"I'm friends with Rory - don't write it any other way," Faldo said. "I've known him since he's 12. He's a big part of my Faldo Series. I'm like big granddad, here, saying exactly those things. Just give it your full attention when you want to play golf.

"When you want to disappear and have a family and do other things, but don't add anymore. Get me? I'm trying to give him a little caring, loving help here."

Faldo's playing partners on Thursday, Tom Watson and Fred Couples, each shot 75.

Defending champion Els opened with a 74, and 2013 U.S. Open champion Justin Rose of England had a 75.

Sweden's Peter Hansen withdrew before the start of the first round.

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