BILL DWYRE

Mark O'Meara, Zach Johnson stay calm and at the top of British Open

Mark O'Meara (67) and Zach Johnson (66) enjoy great starts at the British Open and avoid complaining about the difficult course conditions.

GULLANE, Scotland — On a Thursday at the British Open when the whining, as predicted, reached a high pitch, the old hand and the grinder kept it together and in perspective.

Mark O'Meara, the pride of Long Beach State and a two-time major champion, shot four-under-par 67 and was one shot behind the leader.

That leader was Zach Johnson, who has won one major and was right near the top of the leaderboard in last year's British at Royal Lytham & St. Annes after the first day.

O'Meara is the old hand.

He is 56, made his mark — and a lot of people from his high school days at Mission Viejo and college days at Long Beach — quite proud when he won the Masters and British in 1998. He keeps coming back to play here because he can. Also, because he loves the whole British golf scene. He is exempt as a past winner until he turns 60.

Johnson is the grinder.

He is 37, an Iowan who played at Drake University and made his mark when he won the 2007 Masters. He doesn't hit it long, doesn't throw his clubs, doesn't grimace and snarl at bad moments and bad luck, and doesn't captivate the media with great one-liners. He just hits it down the middle, rolls in lots of putts and doesn't do stupid things. When he won the Masters, he did so by never going for any of the tempting par-fives at Augusta National in two, yet playing them at 11-under par for the week.

Their performances Thursday were against the backdrop of a Muirfield course that played lightning fast, greens that were like gymnasium floors and a lot in the field hated that and used it as the reason for plus numbers next to their name on the scoreboard.

Ian Poulter, for one — a Brit, no less — talked about one of the holes needing "a windmill and a clown's face." He called it a "joke of a hole."

He wasn't alone. They paraded in, beaten, battered and many sulking about the fast conditions and the difficult scoring, on a day of sun and gentle breezes the likes of which the East Coast of Scotland seldom sees.

"It felt like 85 degrees out there, Fahrenheit," Johnson said, agreeing with that part of the assessment.

But he also said, "You've just got to plod along."

O'Meara, an elder statesman who is entitled, pulled no punches about the complaining he had heard before he even got to the press conference.

"I'm not saying that I haven't complained or gotten upset on a golf course," he said, "but I'm not a big fan of guys that get out there and whine a lot."

Both Johnson and O'Meara admitted they might be singing a different tune had they not been sitting around the top of the leaderboard. But both were clearly surprised, and somewhat intolerant, of excuse-making. This is, after all, what the British Open is supposed to be — who can hit the best shots amid pain, suffering and mental discomfort.

"Trust me," O'Meara said, "I've stood on holes where it is 200 yards or 212 and hit driver, and I could barely hold onto the club. And it's freezing and raining and sleeting and cold and I can't put my umbrella up. ... Much more miserable than what we had out there today.

"I thought it was tough, challenging. But unfair? I say no."

Johnson said, "…The weather is tremendous. It is the Open and you expect difficult conditions … but once again, you know that coming in."

He indicated that the complaints about pin placements on the slick greens were unfounded.

"It's not like they were on a crevice or on a tier," he said. "They certainly were playable."

O'Meara had the definitive final word on the matter, at least for the first day.

"If they [the complainers] think that way," he said, "then they need to look at the old man and say, how did he do it?"

Expectations are that the sanctioning Royal and Ancient will spend Thursday evening watering fairways and greens. But with the wind blowing steadily off the Firth of Forth and the temperatures resembling Southern California, it may take one of those tanker planes they use to douse forest fires to soften up this place.

It could also change rapidly and a monsoon-like storm blow in off the North Sea, as it did in 2002 on an ultimate soggy Saturday.

Nobody knows. It's Scotland. Travel agencies don't spend a lot of time promoting beach vacations here.

Which is the point of the British Open, as so aptly pointed out Thursday by two guys who get that and excelled.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

CHICAGO

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