As if to welcome the return of this glorious tournament after two years in the dark, the sun shone brightly on the opening round of the 149th Open Championship.

Royal St George's was initially basked in a warm glow as a crowd of more than 30,000 were treated to a spectacular day of golf at the famous links in Sandwich.

Louis Oosthuizen closed the round top of the leaderboard, but it was the course itself that took centre stage.

And Stats Perform's man on the ground was out and about, taking notes of all the happenings on the other side of the ropes.

SEAVIEW AND FREEVIEW!

There is a large grass mound at the far end of the course that affords a stunning vantage point across the whole links.

A sizeable crowd gathered there from early in the morning, taking in the view from high above the sixth green, with the North Sea glistening in the sunshine away to the east.

But there is another option, with Princes Drive running alongside the course but outside of its perimeter and allowing an unobstructed view of the fifth green, while the sea is a stone's throw away, with plenty of projectiles available on Sandwich Bay's pebble beach.

DINO-SOARING TEMPERATURES

Fancy dress is a common sight at golf tournaments but you should choose your outfit wisely.

The weather forecast in Kent is promising to serve up the best of British summertime over the four days of competition and it made one man's decision to don a dinosaur onesie appear quite ill-judged.

He was to be found roaming the fairway's edge around the seventh hole, and would no doubt soon have been in search of water. Or maybe he was just waiting for Roary McIlroy...

FAN-TASTIC

It was a joy to see so many fans in attendance in Sandwich, with several players commenting on how much it improved the experience for them.

After a prolonged spell of being deprived of such things, Jordan Spieth was among those to welcome the return of crowds to enhance the spectacle.

He said: "I feel like the fans here are very knowledgeable about the sport, and they're also having a great time.

"It's just like at Augusta, it's just a beautiful setting a lot of times, shaping a lot of the holes with people."

Louis Oosthuizen holds the first-round lead at The Open but has Jordan Spieth snapping at his heels in a battle between two former champions.

South African Oosthuizen, who claimed the Claret Jug in 2010, shot a blemish-free 64 to sit one stroke ahead of 2017 winner Spieth, who has Brian Harman for company on five under.

Oosthuizen outshone his playing partners in a headline-grabbing trio featuring reigning champion Shane Lowry and pre-tournament favourite Jon Rahm.

A host of players are within three shots of the summit at Royal St George's, including major winners Justin Rose and Danny Willett, along with 2009 champion Stewart Cink.

Lowry's hopes of becoming the first player to successfully defend the title at the Sandwich links since Harry Vardon in 1899 suffered a setback following an opening 71, with U.S. Open champion Rahm matching that effort.

 

While Oosthuizen holds a narrow advantage, it is three-time major winner Spieth who has the omens on his side, having been drawn in the same group as Branden Grace.

Oosthuizen's compatriot has featured alongside the eventual winner in the opening two rounds of each of the last two editions of golf's oldest major.

World number one Dustin Johnson is poised to make a move after a two-under-par 68, with Sergio Garcia signing for the same score.

Rory McIlroy, who missed the cut on home soil at Royal Portrush two years ago, closed with a birdie to card an even-par 70.

 

SHOT OF DAY

It was not the most technically brilliant strike of the ball, but the nerves involved in Richard Bland's opening tee shot made it a triumph of coolness under pressure.

The Englishman won his first European Tour title at the 478th attempt at the British Masters in May and had the honour in Kent on Thursday.

He managed to keep the ball on the fairway with a drive that was slightly left, but safe nonetheless.

CHIPPING IN

Louis Oosthuizen: "[That was] probably in my mind the perfect round I could have played. I didn't make many mistakes. When I had good opportunities for birdie, I made the putts."

Richard Bland: "It was very special, very nerve-racking. The nerves definitely cranked up a little bit and I was glad to hit one in the fairway." 

Shane Lowry: "It's so good to have the crowds here and it's so good to be playing in the Open Championship like we know. The big grandstands and the big crowds and getting clapped on the grandstands and on the tees, that's pretty cool."

A LITTLE BIRDIE TOLD ME...

- Louis Oosthuizen's 64 is his lowest score at a major.

- Rory McIlroy started an Open with a birdie for the first time, with this the Northern Irishman's 12th entry into the tournament.

- The 15th hole proved the toughest to tame on Thursday, the par four playing at an average of 4.37.

Louis Oosthuizen will draw on the experience of his many close calls at majors as he seeks to claim a second Open title.

The South African shot a blemish-free 64 at Royal St George's on Thursday to earn the clubhouse lead, with Jordan Spieth and Brian Harman one stroke back.

Oosthuizen has not added to the maiden major he secured at the 2010 Open, with eight top-10 finishes – including two tied-seconds this year – marking him down as a consistent contender.

And the 38-year-old sees his performances at the big events as a reason to be confident in Kent this week, even as fellow former Champion Golfer of the Year Spieth lurks ominously just behind.

"It gives me confidence going into majors knowing that I'm still competing in them and I've still got chances of winning," he said.

"But, yes, once the week starts, I need to get that out of my mind and just focus on every round and every shot.

"But it definitely puts me in a better frame of mind going into the week."

Oosthuizen's round was anchored by a fine showing with the putter, averaging 1.4 putts per greens in regulation.

It is an area of his game that Oosthuizen has put a lot of work into and he was glad to see it paying dividends.

"Most of the work I've done was on routine, going back to a few things that I've done early in my career," he explained.

"Every time I go out and do a bit of work on the putting green to just do the same work and the same drills and the same things and get into a really good routine on practice.

"Now when I get on the golf course, it's paying off for me."

Jordan Spieth staked an early claim for a second Open title with a stunning first-round 65 at Royal St George's.

The three-time major winner, who triumphed at Royal Birkdale in 2017, was in fine form on Thursday as he reached five under to sit one stroke behind fellow former Champion Golfer of the Year Louis Oosthuizen. Oosthuizen was still out on the course.

Spieth has the good fortune to be playing alongside Branden Grace, who has featured with the eventual winner in the opening two rounds of the previous two Opens.

The South African teed off in a group with Francesco Molinari at Carnoustie in 2018, before playing alongside Shane Lowry at Royal Portrush a year later.

Spieth's showing put him two ahead of the next-best clubhouse score, with four players on three under.

 

Reigning champion Shane Lowry and pre-tournament favourite Jon Rahm both faced an uphill battle to get involved in the race for the Claret Jug.

Irishman lowry was one over through 16, with U.S. Open champion Rahm one stroke further back at the same stage.

Rory McIlroy tees off at 15:21 local time with the hotly tipped Patrick Reed for company.

The 149th Open Championship got under way at Royal St George's on Thursday, with Jon Rahm the hot favourite to prevail.

Englishman Richard Bland, who won his first European Tour title on his 478th start at the British Open in May, had the honour of teeing off proceedings at 06:35 local time at the Kent links, which is hosting for the 15th time.

Rahm claimed his maiden major with victory at this year's U.S. Open and will attempt to wrestle the Claret Jug from the grasp of playing partner Shane Lowry, with 2010 Champion Golfer of the Year Louis Oosthuizen completing a trio that tees off at 09:58.

Lowry, who is aiming to become the first player to successfully defend the prize at this course since Harry Vardon in 1899, proved a popular winner at Royal Portrush two years ago, with the 2020 event having been cancelled amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Spaniard Rahm is eyeing a rare double, with only six players having won the U.S. Open and Open Championship in the same year.

The omens bode well for the in-form Jordan Spieth after he was drawn alongside Bryson DeChambeau and good-luck charm Branden Grace.

Grace has played with the eventual winner in his first two rounds at each of the previous two Opens.

The South African featured with Francesco Molinari at Carnoustie in 2018 and Lowry in Northern Ireland the following year. 

Four-time major champion Rory McIlroy will head out in the afternoon with Patrick Reed and Cameron Smith, while world number one Dustin Johnson starts his bid for a first Open title at 10:20 with Will Zalatoris and Justin Rose for company.

Brooks Koepka is an 08:45 starter and the star attraction of a threesome that includes Jason Kokrak and Garrick Higgo.

Darren Clarke, who prevailed when last Royal St George's last hosted in 2011, goes out at 08:25 alongside Bernd Wiesberger and amateur Joe Long.

Dustin Johnson says he needs to "step up my game" as his battle with Jon Rahm for the world number one spot continues at the Open Championship.

Two-time major champion Johnson briefly lost top spot to Rahm after the Spaniard won the U.S. Open last month.

But the American is back on top for the Open at Royal St George's having reclaimed first place without playing last week when Rahm finished seventh at the Scottish Open.

"The rankings, they're tough to figure out, but yeah, obviously if you play well, you get to number one," Johnson said after his practice round with Rahm at the Kent links course.

"I need to continue to play well if I want to stay there. 

"Obviously Jon has been playing really well lately. I need to step up my game a little bit."

Johnson has only made one top 10 in his past 10 events but believes his game is returning to how it was in a fantastic finish to 2020 and a strong start to this year.

"Yeah, obviously I had played really solid there really for about six, seven months," he said of the spell around his Masters win last November. 

"I feel like the game is starting to get back to where it was, just seeing a lot more consistency with the shots and the shapes. 

"I think that's probably just a little bit of the difference. Putting, I felt like I putted consistently well for that time period, so just been working on the putter a lot – that ultimately can be the difference."

Johnson came so close to glory when the Open was last played at this course in 2011, in contention before a double bogey at 14 as he ultimately finished in a tie for second and Darren Clarke took the title.

He added: "That was a long time ago, but obviously I have good memories here, and I did play well. 

"I do like this golf course. I feel like it's a tough golf course, a typical links course. For me, I feel like most of it's going to be driving. If I can drive it well, then I feel like I'm going to have a really good week.

"It was a little bit firmer in 2011. Obviously they've had a lot of rain and the rough is definitely a little bit thicker than it was back then." 

As well as that near miss, Johnson has had top-10 finishes in 2012 and 2016, with the prospect of winning his first Claret Jug an enticing one.

"It would definitely be right up at the top," Johnson said when asked where an Open win would rank for him.

"It's obviously a major. It's a tournament where I've been close quite a few times. I really like coming over here and playing. Yeah, it would be right up at the top with the rest of them.

"I think it's shaping up to be a great Open Championship."

Lee Westwood is entering The Open Championship optimistic he can contend as he hopes to have cleared the "mental block" he had at Royal St George's.

The 48-year-old fell away from a promising position at the Scottish Open last week but is confident his game is in a good place.

Westwood missed the cut in 2003 and 2011 when the tournament was last played at the Kent links, but he has attempted to banish those memories for the last major of 2021.

"Coming into this week, I've played here twice in the Open Championship, missed the cut both times," he said.

"Kind of had it in my head, a bit of a mental block that I didn't like the golf course, but I played it [on Tuesday] and really enjoyed it. 

"I loved the way it was set up. I couldn't really remember the golf course too much, probably because I didn't have that much experience of playing on it, only having played two rounds each Open. 

"I really enjoyed it. Enjoyed the conditions and it sort of turned my head around and made me look forward to the week even more really. 

"I'm positive and hoping I can find some form and get into contention. Like all links tournaments, you need a little bit of luck with the weather, you need some good breaks.

"I did win around here as an amateur, so I've had some kind of form around here in the past. I'm just trying to look at it more positively than I've missed two cuts. 

"There will be underlying facts there; I might not have been playing well or my head might not have been in the right place. 

"I feel like if I get my game where it needs to be and it's good for that week, I can contend."

Phil Mickelson won the US PGA Championship to become the oldest major champion at the age of 50 this year.

Westwood was therefore asked if that meant he still had hope of winning one as he prepares to make his 88th major appearance.

He said: "We're from a generation that's maybe had the benefit of sports medicine and maybe a little bit more analytical, knowing what's going on. 

"Tiger [Woods] came on the scene and everybody sort of took that a little bit more seriously mid to late '90s. All the other players that wanted to get ahead of the game sort of looked to him.

"Rather than [golf being an] 'I've been working out for six months thing' and 'this is a quick-fix thing', it's a long-term thing with the likes of myself and Phil, Stewart Cink, people like that playing.

"Look at Bernhard Langer – he's playing well into his 60s because he's looked after himself 30 years ago, not because he started going in the gym three weeks ago. 

"Mine and Phil's generation are now reaping the benefits of the hard work for the last 20 years, analysing movements in the swing and working on injury prevention to those parts of the body that get injured."

The Open Championship makes a welcome return at Royal St George's this week, with the Kent links set to provide a tough challenge.

Last year's event was cancelled amid the coronavirus pandemic, meaning Shane Lowry got to keep hold of the Claret Jug a little longer.

The Irishman was a popular winner at Royal Portrush in 2019 and will be among a star-studded field competing for the honour of Champion Golfer of the Year this week.

The course is a glorious setting for such a titanic battle, and here we take look at some of the key holes that prospective winners will need to tame.

 

HADES IS GONNA GET YOU

The par-four eighth hole is considered the toughest on the course, where many a championship hopeful has come unstuck.

It was originally a par three before a course rebuild ahead of the 1981 Open, but now a three on this 450-yard hole – nicknamed 'Hades' – requires pinpoint accuracy from tee to green.

In 2011, when Royal St George's last hosted golf's oldest major, the hole played at an average of 4.37, with 27 double bogeys recorded to go alongside 140 bogeys.

There is some respite for those who can steer clear of two bunkers that are positioned such that they are particularly hard to avoid from the tee, with 33 birdies posted 10 years ago.

DON'T GET LOST IN THE HIMALAYAS

The only hole that ruined scorecards with more frequency than the eighth in 2011 was the par-four fourth.

With an average of 4.52, this 495-yarder permitted just 16 birdies, while there were seven scores of triple bogey or worse.

It was even tougher in 1985, when the average score was 4.60, with the key here being to avoid the 'Himalaya' bunker off the tee.

The dauntingly large dune stands guard to the fairway, which borders a putting surface that features out of bounds posts tucked tight against its back.

 

THE STRATH: A WELCOME SIGHT

It's not all toil and trouble on this track, as the par-five seventh proves.

This whole, called the Strath, was mightily generous a decade ago, handing out eagles to eventual winner Darren Clarke and Phil Mickelson in the final round.

Nobody should take this forgiving 566-yarder for granted, though, as the green is guarded by a trio of steep-sided sand traps ready to swallow up any wayward approaches.

Anyone wanting to post a strong score should be looking to lay down a marker here.

 

THE END IS NIGH

The 18th hole is a challenge on any course just because of the psychology of it – hold your nerve for one final challenge, or else a day's work may be undone in a matter of minutes.

In this case, the par-four closer poses a danger no matter what the context, as it played at an average of 4.62 in 1985 and was only slightly less troublesome at 4.33 in 2011.

At 450 yards it's not the distance that causes issues, but the precision required with the approach.

Even if you manage to avoid two gaping bunkers off the tee, the notable dip to the left of the green – nicknamed 'Duncan's Hollow' after George Duncan's woes there in a 1922 loss to Walter Hagen – is waiting patiently for any errant approaches.

After an enforced absence in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, The Open is thankfully back on this year's golf calendar.

Royal St George's will host the 149th edition of the tournament, a welcome return to the Kent course that saw Darren Clarke triumph a decade ago.

Shane Lowry is the defending champion, having prevailed at Royal Portrush in 2019, but can he retain his crown? Will one of the big guns instead get their hands on the famous Claret Jug, or could another long shot follow in the footsteps of Ben Curtis, an unlikely champion at the venue back in 2003?

Ahead of the opening round, it is time to take a look at some of the players who could be in contention for glory in the final major of the year.

 

RAHM READY FOR OPEN CHALLENGE – Nicholas McGee

Jon Rahm has struggled to capture his best in four previous appearances at The Open, just one of which has seen him finish with an under-par score (-3 in 2019). However, only in 2018 has he missed the cut, and his blistering form in 2021 suggests he should be firmly in the mix this week.

His 11 top-10 finishes rank as the most on the PGA Tour this season. Rahm also leads the tour in scoring average (69.6) and in strokes gained (2.02 avg). Second in strokes gained tee to green and (1.82 avg) and fifth in greens in regulation (71 per cent), Rahm has displayed consistency that should lend itself to links golf. Further optimism came with a seventh-placed finish at the Scottish Open. The stage looks set for him to emphatically turn his Open fortunes around.

SPIETH HAS THE BELIEF – Russell Greaves

Jordan Spieth has three key things in his favour at this tournament: he's a man in form, he's exceptional with the putter, and he's won it before. The 2017 Champion Golfer of the Year has an overall putting average of 1.566 on the PGA Tour in 2021, placing him seventh in that metric.

That showing on the greens has laid the foundations for a year in which the 27-year-old has enjoyed eight top-10 finishes. He was in a tie for third at the Masters and boasts a career aggregate score of 21 under at the Open Championship, marking him down as a leading contender in Kent.

NO DOUBTING THOMAS AFTER RECENT RUN – Dan Lewis

Justin Thomas has struggled on the links in his career but ended up in a tie for eighth at the Scottish Open last week – his first top-10 finish since winning the Players Championship in March. He opened and closed with rounds of 65 at the Renaissance Club, where he used a new putter, and has not carded a bogey in his last 25 holes.

The 28-year-old may not be among the top group of contenders, but the 2017 US PGA Championship winner is certainly capable of carrying his momentum into this event to claim a second major in his career.

DUSTIN'S TIME TO HAVE A MAJOR IMPACT - Timothy Abraham

The form book might be against him, but world number one Dustin Johnson can have a Claret Jug-shaped silver lining to a disappointing 2021 in the majors. The American failed to make the cut at both the Masters and the US PGA Championship, alongside a 19th-placed finish in the U.S. Open this year.

An aggregate career score of +15 in The Open is hardly the stuff of a potential champion, but a decade ago he tied second behind champion Clarke. Johnson is a better player now, and the type of optimist capable of winning a major out of the blue. Write him off at your peril.

GLORY FOR RORY AGAIN? ABSOLUTELY! – Chris Myson

The Open champion in 2014, Rory McIlroy is rightly seen as a contender in Kent. He did miss the cut at this tournament in 2019 – but that was the first time he has done so since 2013.

When the Northern Irishman gets to the weekend at The Open, he is usually competitive. He had four consecutive top-five finishes prior to his previous disappointing outing and has a total of five in his career, including that triumph seven years ago. A top 10 at the U.S. Open gave McIlroy some much-needed major momentum and he can now finish with a flourish in his final opportunity this year.

HATTON CAN LINK IT ALL TOGETHER - John Skilbeck

Considering the winners Royal St George's has thrown up in the 21st century - Curtis and a past-his-prime Clarke - you might as well stick a pin in the field and take your chances. Tyrrell Hatton has twice won the Dunhill Links Championship which points to him knowing how to handle an Open course, and he has scored victories on each side of the Atlantic in the past 18 months so brings recent experience of closing out tournaments successfully.

Whether he wins or not is another thing: there are missed cuts on his Open Championship CV. However, two top-six finishes in the last four editions suggests the Englishman might not be far away.

Brooks Koepka would relish a Sunday showdown with rival Bryson DeChambeau at The Open as the pair's feud continued at Royal St George's.

The American duo have been exchanging barbs for a long while now, with Koepka invited to offer an explanation when he faced the media ahead of the 149th Open in Kent on Tuesday.

Koepka revealed the issue started at the 2019 Northern Trust at Liberty National after he called out his compatriot for slow play.

A disgruntled DeChambeau took it up with Koepka's caddie, Ricky Elliott, before the pair apparently decided to call it quits, only for DeChambeau to stoke the fire with some unflattering comments about his countryman during a public online video game session.

Four-time major winner Koepka explained: "It was at Liberty. He didn't like that I had mentioned his name in slow play, so we had a conversation in the locker room, and then I guess we said something else in the press conference but didn't mention his name in it, and he walked up to Ricky and said: 'You tell your man if he's got something to say, say it to me.'

"I thought that was ironic because he went straight to Ricky. Ricky told me when I came out, I hit a few putts, and then just walked right over to him, we had a conversation.

"We both agreed we'd leave each other out of it and wouldn't mention each other, just kind of let it die off, wouldn't mention each other's names, just go about it.

"So then he decided I guess he was going on that little, whatever, playing video games online or whatever and brought my name up and said a few things, so now it's fair game."

Asked about the prospect of being paired with DeChambeau for the final round at golf's oldest major this weekend, Koepka said he would be up for the battle.

"Yeah, I would enjoy it. I would enjoy it. I'll be close to the final group come Sunday," he said.

"I always feel like I play well in the big events, the majors. I think it would be a lot more people tuning in, with everything that's gone on over the last two years, something like that, three years. So yeah, I think there would be a lot of people tuning in."

With the Ryder Cup to come at Whistling Straits in September, the two are set to be team-mates, but Koepka can handle a week of being on the same side.

"It's only a week. I mean, look, I can put it aside for business," he said.

"If we're going to be on the same team, I can deal with anybody in the world for a week. I'm not playing with him.

"I'm pretty sure we're not going to be paired together; put it that way. I think it's kind of obvious. It doesn't matter.

"We're not going to be high-fiving and having late-night conversations. I do my thing, he does his thing."

Speaking later the same day, DeChambeau was a little more succinct, saying of Koepka: "He can say whatever he wants. I think he said something back at Liberty National not upholding something. I don't know what he's talking about in that regard."

Rory McIlroy believes missing the cut at the Scottish Open could prove beneficial as he bids for glory at The Open.

The four-time major winner, who claimed the Claret Jug in 2014, endured a testing couple of days at the Renaissance Club, where an intruder attempted to steal his club.

McIlroy failed to make the weekend but that gave the 32-year-old extra preparation time ahead of the 149th Open at Royal St George's.

He will try to atone for a poor showing at the 2019 edition of golf's oldest major, where he missed the cut as the home hope at Royal Portrush.

The omens bode well for McIlroy, who has bounced back to win the next tournament in three of the previous nine instances where he has seen his campaign ended after two rounds.

 

Asked if that fact was mere coincidence, McIlroy said: "No, I certainly don't think it's a chance statistic.

"Look, I think in golf you always learn more about your game when you've missed a cut or struggled or not played as well. I think anyone can play well, anyone can hit the ball great and give themselves chances to win, but you just learn more.

"I've always learnt more from disappointments and from not doing as well, but I've always tried to learn. I've always tried to figure out, okay, why did this week not go so well, and then you give yourself a couple of thoughts and they're fresh in your mind going into the next week.

"That's why I say in golf there's always next week, and that's a great thing, because you can right some wrongs pretty quickly. I've been able to do that in the past.

"I missed the cut at Memorial a couple years ago, went down and won the Canadian Open the next week. Yeah, missed the cut at the Masters and then went and my next start was Quail Hollow and I won.

"Golf always just gives you another opportunity to go out and play well and to see if you've learned from your mistakes, and I've always made it a priority in my career to really try to learn from my mistakes, all the way back to what happened at Augusta in 2011 and going and winning the U.S. Open the next major."

Indeed, after his disappointment in Northern Ireland in 2019, McIlroy closed that year by winning the FedExCup, which he said "gave me a few million reasons to feel better".

He will tee off at the Kent links in pursuit of a second Open title on Thursday at 15:21 local time alongside Patrick Reed and Cameron Smith.

Jon Rahm is eyeing a historic double at The Open Championship this week as he seeks to add to his U.S. Open triumph.

The Spaniard is among the leading contenders at Royal St George's after claiming his maiden major at Torrey Pines last month.

Just six players have doubled up by winning both The Open and the U.S. Open in the same year, with Bobby Jones having done so twice before Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and Tiger Woods repeated the feat.

Woods managed it in 2000 and Rahm has the chance to join that elite club 21 years on.

"It would be pretty incredible to win both Opens in one year. It would be amazing," said Rahm.

"I did have a sense of relief after winning the first major. I felt like for the better part of five years, all I heard is major, major, major just because I was playing good golf, as if it was easy to win a major championship.

"But the fact that you are expected to win one means nothing, but you're playing good golf, so a bit of relief in that sense, but it doesn't really change.

"There's still the next one to win, so I still come with the same level of excitement obviously and willingness to win.

"I'm focused on the fact it would be pretty incredible to be able to win The Open. Nobody after Seve has been able to do that [from Spain]."

 

Rahm, who will tee off alongside reigning champion Shane Lowry and 2010 winner Louis Oosthuizen on Thursday, also underlined why he was sticking to his plans to play at the Olympics despite many players having opted out of competing in Japan.

"I can't speak for other people, so I don't know why they're opting out of it, you'd have to ask them," he said.

"I'm not going to speak for them. In my case, I've been really fortunate enough to represent Spain at every level as an amateur since I was 13 years old.

"I've been able to win many team events representing Spain worldwide. Once you turn professional you don't really get that chance. You get a little bit of the Ryder Cup, but it's not the same thing as the Olympics or a World Cup maybe.

"To be able to have that chance as a pro, something that up until four or five years ago was not even a possibility, to me it was something I would never doubt.

"You get the chance to call yourself an Olympian, which is only a very select group of people in history that can call themselves that, and if you were to get a medal, especially a gold medal, you're even more of a select group, right?"

U.S. Open winner Jon Rahm will tee off alongside 2019 Champion Golfer of the Year Shane Lowry at the 2021 Open Championship on Thursday.

Spaniard Rahm won his maiden major at Torrey Pines, edging out Louis Oosthuizen by one stroke, and is among the favourites to prevail at Royal St George's this week. 

Lowry was a popular winner when golf's oldest major was held at Royal Portrush two years ago, with the 2020 event having been cancelled amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Irishman, whose trio goes out at 09:58 local time and also includes 2010 victor Oosthuizen, will seek to become the first man to defend the Claret Jug at the Kent links since Harry Vardon in 1899.

Any superstitious players might have hoped to be drawn in Branden Grace's group, as he has played with the eventual winner in his first two rounds at each of the previous two Opens.

The South African featured with Francesco Molinari at Carnoustie in 2018 and Lowry in Northern Ireland the following year. 

 

Jordan Spieth, a winner in 2017, and 2020 U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau are the lucky pair, with that group teeing off at 09:25.

Four-time major champion Rory McIlroy will head out in the afternoon with Patrick Reed and Cameron Smith, while world number one Dustin Johnson starts his bid for a first Open title at 10:20 with Will Zalatoris and Justin Rose for company.

Brooks Koepka is an 08:45 starter and the star attraction of a threesome that includes Jason Kokrak and Garrick Higgo.

Darren Clarke, who prevailed when last Royal St George's last hosted in 2011, is an 08:25 starter alongside Bernd Wiesberger and amateur Joe Long.

The action will begin at 06:35, with English trio Richard Bland, Andy Sullivan and Marcus Armitage having the honour.

Shane Lowry is eager to embrace every aspect of the challenge he faces in trying to defend his Open Championship title at Royal St George's.

The Irishman claimed his first major title at Royal Portrush in 2019 and has had to wait two years to put the Claret Jug back on the line after the COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of the 2020 event.

No player has retained their title at the Kent links since Harry Vardon in 1899 and this week is the 15th time the course has hosted, but for Lowry it is the whole experience of returning to the tournament as defending champion that is motivating him.

"There's a lot of things that I've got to play for this week other than defending the trophy," he said.

"It's a bit of everything. It's being announced on the first tee as defending champion. I'll be happy obviously to get that tee shot away, and if you've seen the rough down the first hole, I'll be happy if it's on the fairway.

"I'm kind of going into this week with an open mind. I'm really looking forward to the week ahead, and I'm looking forward to playing in The Open Championship, because we did miss it last year.

"Coming to play in The Open Championship, whether you're defending or not, is exciting because it's such a big event.

"It's always great to play in The Open. I said one of the coolest things about being The Open champion is I get to play in it for years. I have a lot more left, which is obviously really cool. This is one of them."

Lowry was a hugely popular winner on the island of Ireland last time out and he holds special memories of that triumph, which he sealed by a six-shot margin over Tommy Fleetwood.

"I look back on Portrush with incredible memories and fond memories and something that I'll have no matter what I do for the rest of my career. I'll always have that," he said.

Prior to his Portrush triumph, Lowry had missed the cut in four successive outings at golf's oldest major for a combined score of 23 over par across those eight rounds. 

His success two years ago was founded on stunningly accurate approach play, which saw Lowry hit 79.2 per cent of greens in regulation, putting him out ahead of the field.

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