"One for the old farts," declared Mark O'Meara with a smile after striking a blow for the veterans on a day when one or two of the younger generation let rip.

The toys may have been tossed out of the social media pram by the likes of Ian Poulter, who had a good old girn on Twitter at the state of some of the increasingly fiery Muirfield greens, but O'Meara was having none of this online mumping and moaning. This was his time to roll back the years and a neatly assembled four-under 67 had the former Open champion riding high in the upper echelons of the first- round leaderboard, just a stroke behind Zach Johnson, who set the pace with a 66.

O'Meara, who captured the Claret Jug at Birkdale 15 years ago, simply revelled in the unrelenting, potentially mind-mangling links test that was provided as temperatures soared both on and off the course. Patience, craft, mental resolve and experience were the attributes shown in abundance as the popular 56-year-old plotted and probed his way to the sharp end of affairs. He kept the head while others lost theirs and two birdies on his opening two holes, and four in total over the first six, laid the foundations for his robust assault. He would finish with a flourish, knocking a 6-iron in to 35-feet on the long 17th and trundling in the raking putt on these devilishly tricky greens for an exhilarating eagle.

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So what about those whingers? Well, like spoilt brats, they got a clip round the lug. "I've played, what 27, 28 Opens, and trust me, I've stood on holes and I could barely hold the club, it's freezing, raining, I can't put my umbrella up and it's miserable," said O'Meara, whose passion for the game's oldest major remains undiminished. "To me that's more miserable than what we had here. It was tough, it was challenging but unfair? No. If they think it's that way then they need to look at the old man and say 'how did he do it?' I'm not saying that I haven't complained or got upset on the course but I'm not a big fan of guys that whine a lot, especially today's generation. They're so talented, they're playing for so much money. I mean, show a bit of appreciation to be at the top level. Players needs to conduct themselves in the right manner and when they don't it does bother me."

Like many of a similar golfing vintage, O'Meara remains inspired by the exploits of Tom Watson at Turnberry in 2009, when the then 59-year-old almost conjured a fairytale triumph, and the former Masters champion still dreams that particular dream. "Do I think I can win here?," he asked himself. "When I play like I did today, yes I think I can. I didn't feel 56 out there; I felt like I was 32. The quality of shots I hit today were as good as I played in my prime."

Johnson, too, was clattering the crisp strikes away and the end result was highly productive. An outward half of 31 came alive at the fifth when he holed a putt of 45-feet for eagle before reeling off birdies at six and seven as his charge gathered pace. Beaten in a play-off to the John Deere Classic crown last Sunday, Johnson, the former Masters champion who tied ninth in the 2012 Open at Lytham, gave himself the perfect pick me up. "This game demands resilience and you embrace what happens, throw it behind you and plod on," said Johnson, after finishing one clear of O'Meara and the impressive Spaniard, Rafael Cabrera Belo.

Those in the earlier groups had an advantage, getting out and about before the greens completely morphed into something resembling a skating rink and it was the wily veteran Miguel Angel Jimenez who set the initial standard with a three-under 68. The first hole was causing all sorts of mischief – by noon there had already been 23 bogeys and a dozen numbers higher than that – but Jimenez made short work of it with a birdie 3. In fact, he made 3s on his first three holes to be three-under. It was all very three and easy. Now in his 25th year on the European Tour, Jimenez is well aware of that other significant 25. It's the number of years since his late, great compatriot, Seve Ballesteros, won his last Open at Lytham in 1988 but Jimenez is not one to get carried away by any dreamy notions. "I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow," said the pony-tailed 49-year-old, who was joined on that three-under tally by another golden oldie, Tom Lehman, as well as Dustin Johnson, Brandt Snedeker and India's Shiv Kapur. "Obviously it would be a huge dream but I don't think about winning or not winning. The important thing is to enjoy yourself and be happy on the course. "

If only Rory McIlroy could do that. The toiling, troubled world No.2 endured another bewildering, morale-sapping day. He was only one-over at the turn but what followed was excruciating. He stumbled home in 42 with, what some cynics would cheekily say, was a solid back nine marred by two pars. He double-bogeyed the 12th, when his chip rolled back to his feet, then putted into the bunker on 15 for another ruinous six. Bogeys at 17 and 18 closed out a thoroughly miserable 79.

It was a day for knuckling down and dealing with the blows and bad breaks. Justin Rose, the US Open champion, had to settle for a 75 and was joined on that mark by the highly fancied Graeme McDowell, who flung an ugly double-bogey 7 into his four-over card. Ernie Els, the defending champion and the winner here at Muirfield in 2002, emerged with a few scars too and his 74 included a triple-bogey 6 on the 16th. Adam Scott, the Masters champion, salvaged a level-par 71 with Tiger Woods lurking ominously on the leaderboard after a 69. Phil Mickelson was also in the thick of it as the new Scottish Open champion battled to a 69.

Mark O'Meara takes everything in his stride en route to a 67. Picture: Getty Images