It’s OK for a professional athlete to take an occasional hiatus.
Didn’t we learn that lesson when a fresh and rested Roger Federer won Wimbledon last weekend?
Reminders cropped up Thursday on the first day of the British Open, when the leaderboard was populated with Americans Jordan Spieth and Brooks Koepka — who just put down the clubs for four and five weeks — and 39-year-old Matt Kuchar, currently the highest-earning PGA Tour player without a major championship win.
Each shot a five-under-par 65 to forge a three-way tie at Royal Birkdale, where the churning sky produced a light rain in the morning and postcard-worthy sunshine in the afternoon.
Whereas Kuchar and Koepka turned in scorching nines — Kuchar shot 29 on the front, Koepka 32 on the back — Spieth was outstanding throughout with a 31 and 34.
“Everything was strong,” said Spieth, who won the Masters and U.S. Open in 2015 and already has two tournament wins this year. “I give it a nine [out of 10] across the board for everything — tee balls, ball-striking, short game and putting. So things are in check.”
It might have been a four-way tie had San Diego’s Charley Hoffman been able to hang on to his stellar round. He got to five-under before giving back two strokes with consecutive bogeys. He finished in a six-way tie for sixth, one shot behind Paul Casey and Charl Schwartzel.
This was the first day and the leaderboard was as unpredictable as the weather. The Friday forecast calls for rain in the afternoon but, in talking to locals, it’s anyone’s guess.
Koepka played once, with his manager, since winning the U.S. Open in mid-June.
“It’s funny, I’ll play with my dad and shoot 75 every time or higher,” he said. “It’s hard to get into it. You just need a little bit of competitiveness and a little bit of something to get me going.
“I mean, look at all the majors I’ve played .… The record has been pretty good. Any time you put something on the line like that, I get up for it.”
As for Kuchar, he has earned $39.77 million since joining the PGA Tour in 2001 but is still looking for his first victory in a major. His best finish at the British Open was a tie for ninth in 2012.
Kuchar believes good golf is more about crushing shots than crunching numbers, so he was unmoved Thursday when he was told that five of the past six British Open winners were 39 or older. Asked why more seasoned players have been particularly successful at this tournament, he said: “I don’t pay attention and I don’t have an answer. It’s not something I think about.”
The performance of a fellow leader did catch his attention, however.
Local favorite Tommy Fleetwood, who grew up in Southport, sputtered along and shot 76, with no birdies, four bogeys and a double.
“It’s still The Open and I shot six-over,” he said, “but to be honest I’m just thinking about playing tomorrow. I know there were people that will shoot five-under tomorrow — there’s a long way to go.”
Anything can happen, as Rory McIlroy can attest. The 2014 British Open winner started Thursday with a tailspin and ended with a club spin. He had five bogeys on the front, and four birdies on the back for a 71.
“Just a bit of lack of confidence over the last couple of weeks, and just letting that get in my head a little bit,” McIlroy said. “Yeah, it’s a major championship. These are the four biggest tournaments of the year. And you want to go out there and shoot a good score and get off to a good start.
“I’m always more nervous playing in these four tournaments than I am anything else. And I felt that out there today just because of the lack of self-belief. But somehow I was able to find it halfway through the round and, again, that’s what I’m going to concentrate on going into tomorrow.”
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer