Confident McIlroy's 66 lays down an early marker
Irishman storms into an early lead at Hoylake as Shane Lowry opens with a 68
Rory McIlroy chips onto the 15th green during the first round of the British Open Championship at the Royal Liverpool Golf Club in Hoylake. Photo: Toby Melville/Reuters
There are certain indicators which confirm all is dandy in Rory McIlroy’s on-course world. There is a bounce in his step. The club twirls in his hands after a shot has been executed. There is a wave to the crowds, a grin on his face. Yesterday, for the most part, one or all of those actions were there as he started his quest for the Claret Jug in this 143rd Open Championship with a virtuoso performance.
On a day of beautiful sunshine and very little wind, the course – especially for the early wave – had very little protection. As players sought to take advantage of their good fortune, nobody succeeded quite so well as McIlroy.
An opening round 66, six-under-par, gave the 25-year-old Northern Irishman the first round lead, a shot clear of Italy’s Matteo Manassero, with a massed group – among them world number one Adam Scott – a shot further adrift.
Softer greensIn truth, the conditions were as benign as it gets on a links. The R&A tucked some pins into tricky positions, but, with little or no wind for much of the day, and softer greens than normally found on seaside courses, players made hay whilst the sun shone.
“This is not links golf today. This is not how the golf course is supposed to play,” remarked Darren Clarke, a man as familiar with the nuances of links golf as anyone on this planet.
Yet, not everyone had it their own way, with defending champion Phil Mickelson hitting his approach to the 18th out-of-bounds on his way to an opening 74. Ernie Els, his predecessor as custodian of the trophy, had an even tougher time: the South African three-putted from inside two feet on the first hole for a triple-bogey and, somewhat flummoxed, never recovered. He eventually signed for a 79.
Unfortunately, others fared worse. Bryden Macpherson, a young Australian professional, shot an opening 90 which was the highest round since Ian Baker Finch shot a 92 in the first round at Royal Troon in 1997.
Mickelson wasn’t one for hiding his displeasure with his score, particularly with the internal out-of-bounds on the 18th. “This is the best I’ve hit it in over a year, I had as much control over the golf ball as I’ve had in a long time. Whether it was working cuts into the wind, draws into the wind, shots off the tee. And certainly the score sucks,” he said.
Second roundMcIlroy had no such problems yesterday. These days, his woes tend to come in the second round. Much has been made of what has been called “freaky Friday” or “second round syndrome” this season but, in actual fact, it is nothing new to McIlroy in the British Open. At St Andrews in 2010 he followed up an opening 63 with a second round 80, and at Lytham in 2012 he had a 67 to start before reversing into a second round 75.
At least McIlroy knows what lies ahead of him as he moves on in this championship.
What’s the difference? Why should there be such a variance in scores between first rounds and second rounds so frequently this season? McIlroy admitted he has had some unsolicited advice on the matter, but felt it wiser not to divulge who had given it to him or what it was.
As he put it yesterday, a smile on his face, “Whenever I go out and play on Thursdays, there’s not many expectations. You’re going out there and you’re trying to find a rhythm and you’re just trying to play your way into the round. When you go back out on a Friday after a good (first) round, you know what you can do on the golf course. So you’re going out with expectations . . . . I think I’ve just to start off trying to hit solid shots the first few holes and play my way into the round.”
Million timesIn falling back to a couple of golf’s oldest clichés, McIlroy added: “Really, I’ll just take it one hole at a time, one shot at a time. I know everyone says it and you’ve heard it a million times, but it’s true. That’s what I’ll be trying to do.”
One man who got a close-up view of McIlroy’s play yesterday was Jordan Spieth, who remarked: “The way he is striking it, he is the one to beat!”
McIlroy has previously held the outright lead on two occasions in Majors: in the 2010 British Open, where he eventually finished tied-third; and in the 2012 US PGA at Kiawah, where he slipped to tied-fifth after the second round but then kicked on over the weekend to win his second career Major.
Yesterday was a day when McIlroy seemed at ease with everything. As he walked up the third fairway, after another excellent tee shot, he turned to his caddie, JP Fitzgerald.
“There’s nothing like the atmosphere of an Open championship,” said McIlroy.
His words were matched by his deeds, as he played a solid round of golf. He hit shots into the spots he needed to, and took his pars without being overly aggressive on the tougher holes. He took advantage of the four Par 5s, birdieing three of them.
A good day’s work, in anyone’s language.