Strong finish leaves Rory McIlroy in a positive frame of mind

2014 champion shows resilience as two birdies in last five holes help him post an opening 70

 Rory McIlroy  hits out of the rough on the 12th   hole during the first round of The Open  golf championship at Royal St George’s in Sandwich, Kent. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

Rory McIlroy hits out of the rough on the 12th hole during the first round of The Open golf championship at Royal St George’s in Sandwich, Kent. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

 

It started so well. Rory McIlroy with caddie Harry Diamond in tow made their way to the first tee box, passing through the horseshoe grandstand’s tunnel.

“This is the one,” proclaimed the branding, as if to emphasise that this oldest Major of them all is the most cherished of them all.

Whatever about the branded messaging etched in white to a blue background, each one of the 156 players in this 149th edition of the championship made the same journey and each one carried their own expectations.

McIlroy’s expectations are always to deliver, even if his only Claret Jug came all of seven years ago in 2014 when he then kicked on to add the Wanamaker Trophy. That US PGA win proved to be the fourth career Major, and – so far – his last.

The Northern Irishman’s troubles since then have been mainly inflicted in damaging opening rounds. In fact, since 2015, McIlroy’s average scoring in the first round of the Majors has been 72.3; his average score in rounds two to four have been 70.1.

In this instance, McIlroy signed for an opening level-par 70, salvaging a round that seemed to be running away from him with two birdies in his closing five holes.

A birdie on the first hole got him off and running and, for the first time since 2014, he managed to find the opening two fairways with his tee shots. But such a freewheeling start didn’t continue smoothly; there would be speed bumps along the way.

His body language – especially during a run of three successive bogeys from the fifth – told its story of frustration. So, too, McIlroy’s own words in speaking to a ball that doesn’t listen.

“Stay, stay,” he would urge. Or, “Hang on, hang on.”

At one point, after a poor approach to the 16th, the utterance didn’t even come out in words. Instead, “Ha, ha, ha, ha . . .!” was all he offered. But the importance of a 10 footer for birdie on the 18th hole wasn’t lost on him, as he fist-pumped the air as the ball dropped into the tin cup.

Really happy

“I’m really happy with that finish. It was a pretty tricky afternoon. The conditions got pretty rough there in the middle of the round and I made a few bogeys in a row. So I said to myself at the turn, if I could just get back to even par , I’d be happy. To birdie the last hole and get back to even par, it was nice to finish like that and I look forward to getting back out there tomorrow.

“The greens have been slow. The whole transition of coming back to Europe and putting on these greens, I felt they were slow in Ireland, they were slow in Scotland and they’re slow this week as well.

“Patrick [Reed] left a lot short and so did Cam [Smith], so did I. I put extra weight in my putter this week to try to counteract the slow greens. My pace was a bit better today than it was in practice. I was leaving some woefully short the last couple of days so the extra weight in the putter helped a little bit.

“It’s just so hard. The wind was so strong and you get a putt back into the wind and you really have to give it a belt to get it to the hole. It’s more mentally than anything else. It’s one shot closer to the lead and to battle back, I was two over through seven after getting off to a good start.

“So to battle back and shoot even par and play the last 11 holes in two-under, I was pretty pleased with that in those conditions,” said McIlroy.

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