SOUTHPORT, England (Reuters) - Ian Poulter ignited the home challenge at the British Open on Thursday with a near faultless three-under-par 67, stirring memories of his near-miss when the tournament was last staged at Royal Birkdale nine years ago.
The 41-year-old played superbly on the greens, holding from 20 feet on the second and taking just 22 putts in total in his attempt to become the first Englishman to win the event since Nick Faldo at Muirfield in 1992.
Poulter came close in 2008 when he finished runner-up to Ireland’s Padraig Harrington, but he looked back to his best after overcoming form and fitness problems to take his place at Birkdale via a qualifying tournament earlier this month.
“I was more committed with the putter in hand today. I hit a lot of good putts, and hit a lot of good shots, and it adds up to a good score,” said Poulter, who missed last year’s tournament with a foot injury and is competing in his first major since the 2016 Masters.
“To be out with injury last year and miss an Open was tough,” he said. “And it’s quite nice to go through qualifying, go out there, post a red number today, when the last time I played here in 2008 was a pretty good 69 on a tough day as well.”
Poulter teed off just as the early rain was easing. He and playing partners Scotland’s Russell Knox and Sweden’s Alex Noren became the first group to hit the green at the par four first hole in the regulation two shots.
Poulter’s only bogey came at the seventh, when he was forced to use an awkward splayed stance to chip out of a bunker.
The Englishman hit back with a birdie at the ninth to take an early share of the lead and rescued par from an unpromising lie at the 10th.
“A key hole for me was 10 today,” he said. “I didn’t hit a very committed four-iron off the tee. Left myself way back in the rough... That was a good save. After birdieing nine, it would have been a shame to have let that go.”
Poulter, who was in contention going into the final day at last week’s Scottish Open, said his opening round at Birkdale was reward for hard work that has seen him battle his way back to 78th in the world.
“I’m proud of the way I’ve been able to refocus, get things back on the straight and narrow.”
Reporting by Neil Robinson; editing by John Stonestreet