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By Ed Osmond

SANDWICH, England (Reuters) – England’s Danny Willett and Andy Sullivan along with South African Justin Harding set the early clubhouse target with rounds of 67 as the 149th British Open started in sunny conditions at Royal St George’s on Thursday.

Canadian Mackenzie Hughes moved to five under par after 13 holes and American Jordan Spieth, the 2017 Open champion, made four consecutive birdies on the front nine to join Willett, Sullivan and Harding on three under.

The 2020 tournament was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic but up to 32,000 fans are allowed in each day this year as part of a government test event and warm applause rippled around the links course under clear skies.

Willett, the 2016 Masters champion, mixed two birdies and two bogeys on the front nine before picking up three shots over the closing holes.

“The Open is a very special venue, a very special tournament for everyone,” Willett told reporters.

“To be able to be clapped onto every tee, every green makes a big difference in this game and it’s been fantastic to have them back.”

American Brooks Koepka, a four-times major champion, started with a solid 69, but it was a tough morning for 2020 U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau.

The long-hitting American visited the treacherous rough on several occasions and made three bogeys on the front nine to drop back to one over.

World number one Dustin Johnson was level par through 10 holes and Norwegian Viktor Hovland started with a 68 to finish two under.

Defending champion Shane Lowry of Ireland struggled to two over playing with former British Open winner Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa and Spanish U.S. Open champion Jon Rahm, whose solid start was spoiled by a double bogey at the ninth.

Four-times major champion Rory McIlroy, winner of the British Open in 2014, was among the late starters playing alongside American Ryder Cup rival Patrick Reed.

Richard Bland was given the honour of hitting the opening shot of the tournament and the Englishman, who won his first European PGA Tour title this season at the 478th attempt, struck his drive straight down the fairway.

“It was very special, very nerve-racking,” Bland told reporters. “This is what it’s all about. The nerves definitely sort of cranked up a little bit and I was glad to hit one in the fairway.”

(Reporting by Ed Osmond; Editing by Ken Ferris)