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Zach Johnson shoots 66 for British Open lead

Zach Johnson hits his drive on the second

Zach Johnson hits his drive on the second hole during the final round of the John Deere Classic held at TPC Deere Run in Silvis, Illinois. (July 15, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

GULLANE, Scotland - Four days after losing a sudden-death playoff for a tournament in Middle America, Zach Johnson is leading the British Open on the eastern coast of Scotland.

On a parched, dusty Muirfield course that had some players complaining about dried-out greens and rock-hard fairways, Johnson shot a 5-under-par 66 Thursday in the first round to top a leader board packed with possibilities and major winners -- two of them in their 50s.

A shot behind Johnson, the 2007 Masters champion, are the Spaniard Rafael Cabrera-Bello and 56-year-old Mark O'Meara, who in 1998 won both the Open and the Masters.

"Experience helps on links courses," was O'Meara's explanation for the recognizable veteran names who had top rounds.

Tied at 3-under 68 are another Spaniard, the guy with the ponytail, Miguel Angel Jimenez, who's 49; another Open champ, Tom Lehman, who's 54; another Johnson, Dustin; Brandt Snedeker, the second-round leader last year, and a golfer from India who went to Purdue University, Shiv Kapur.

Very much present and accounted for with 69s were Todd Hamilton, the '04 Open winner; Phil Mickelson, with three Masters and one PGA Championship; former Masters and U.S. Open winner Angel Cabrera of Argentina, and 19-year-old Jordan Spieth, who qualified for the tournament by beating Zach Johnson and David Hearn in a playoff for the John Deere Classic on Sunday in Illinois.

Oh yes, also at 69 is Tiger Woods, who despite needing to take a penalty drop after his first shot of the day, a drive into the left rough, said: "I'm very pleased to shoot anything even par or better."

Very unpleased, even bewildered, was Rory McIlroy, who after a 37-42-79 is 8 over par. In the majors this year -- four rounds in the Masters, four in the U.S. Open, one in the Open Championship -- McIlroy is a cumulative 24 over par.

Zach Johnson was a shot out of the lead after the first round of the rain-soaked 2012 Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes but ended up tied for ninth. Now he's back, citing resilience and confidence.

"Anytime you shoot under par in an Open," said Johnson, "you have to be putting at least somewhat decent, and I putted great."

Asked how he managed to lift his spirits after missing in the Deere playoff, Johnson joked, "I had forgotten all about it until you just mentioned it."

Woods, as is always mentioned, trying to win his first major since the 2008 U.S. Open, didn't tee off until 2:45 p.m., long after Johnson and Mickelson were done.

"The golf course just kept drying out," Woods said. "It was hard to get the ball close . . . I could see how guys were complaining about it . . . Some of those putts today, I putted the ball off the green."

That was on 14. McIlroy putted off the 15th into a bunker. O'Meara chipped over the same green into the same bunker. Great theater, irritating golf.

Mickelson, winner of last weekend's Scottish Open, said, "I love the fact I shot under par because it's a very challenging course. I had a spurt there in the middle of the round where I had some technical difficulties and hit some poor shots. But I was able to make pars and then turned it around."

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