Ian Poulter, who missed five majors in a row with injury and made it to this, the sixth, only after coming through final qualifying at his home club, Woburn, has previous at Birkdale and memories of the 2008 experience flashed through his mind as he completed a commendable three‑under 67 to leave himself well placed to challenge for a first major title.
Poulter’s second-place finish at the Players Championship in May set up his season after it looked like he had lost his US Tour card the previous month, only for a clerical error to be unearthed and give him a second chance. He got his game into links mode at the Scottish Open last week, where he shared the lead after three rounds only to finish with a disappointing 74. He then drove himself down from Dundonald on Sunday evening to prepare for the big one.
Conditions were untypical when he set about reacquainting himself with the links where a fourth-round 69 gave him outright second place nine years ago, still his best finish in a major. But some of the things Poulter picked up then still had a relevance.
“I always knew it was going to be pretty strong winds today, that’s what the forecast was,” the Englishman said. “I sat down to review the weather last night with the yardage book in hand, I kind of planned or plotted a way around this golf course to try and keep out of the fairway bunkers.
“The practice round earlier in the week was irrelevant. It was the opposite wind to what we’ve had today so it wasn’t very helpful. What was helpful was the wind today was like it was on Sunday last time it was played in 2008.
“So I almost played a round of golf last night in my head and I had a lower score in my head last night than I did today. My last two rounds on this golf course have been good ones. And I’m pretty happy with the result.”
Poulter still has plenty of air in his tyres at the age of 41; though the enforced injury break led him to try his hand at TV commentary for a couple of days and Ryder Cup vice-captaincy for a few more, the competitive drive still burns within. The fact that a qualifier has not won the Open since Paul Lawrie achieved the feat at Carnoustie in 1999 would be another incentive to make his major breakthrough, not that he needs one.
“Not playing majors and WGC’s is something obviously that I haven’t been used to over a long period of time. So that’s been difficult,” he said. “To get back in on a golf course that I like and that I’ve performed well on, it was very pleasing to get it done, and it’s obviously very nice to play well.”
On Friday he is out at 1.04pm, by which time the wind is forecast to have switched from the west-to-south-west offering on Thursday back to a south-easterly, so who knows, there may still be a return from the due diligence of Tuesday.
Alfie Plant, the European Amateur champion from Bexleyheath, has his sights fixed on his own target, the Silver Medal. Cheered on by a noisy bunch of followers, some of whom are billeted in nearby Pontins with others an hour’s drive away in Lytham St Annes, the 25-year-old opened with a birdie at the 1st hole where he hit his approach shot to six feet and moved into outright second place for a few minutes.
“I think the excitement over-ran the nerves [on the tee],” Plant said. “I was quite surprised that the ball went straight really. I didn’t feel it come off the club-head.” He handed the shot back at the 6th but further birdies at the beginning and end of the back nine were negated by a dropped shot at 13 and a costly double at the par-three 14th.
Stuart Manley of South Wales, a 38-year-old who came through qualifying school last year and won his place at Birkdale with a joint‑second-place finish at the Johannesburg Open, actually held the clubhouse lead for a while on two-under 68 after a birdie at the 6th negated his bogey at the 1st. He made up for another dropped shot at the 14th with an eagle, birdie finish.
“I thought: ‘OK, this is the game I’ve got, I’m just going to have to plot my way around,’ and it seemed to work,” he said. “I took out a lot of the fairway bunkers, and I kind of aimed at the front edge of the green every time, and just tried to make par every hole, really. And then capped it off with a great finish to make the score a little bit better.”