WHEN you’ve shot 61 at Royal Portrush and 63 at St Andrews, it takes something special even to come close in terms of career-best rounds. It reflected the quality of his effort, therefore, that Rory McIlroy ranked a seven-under-par 64 in testing conditions at Royal Aberdeen as being “up there” in terms of career-best rounds.
In his first appearance in the £3 million Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open since 2009, it earned the two-times major winner another course record, as well as a one-shot cushion over Sweden’s Kristof Broberg and Ricardo Gonzalez from Argentina at the end of the opening round.
On a day when the scoring was better than many expected – 39 finished the day under par compared to nine in the Women’s British Open taking place at Royal Birkdale – 2011 Dunhill Links champion Michael Hoey came home in 29 to sit just two off the pace. Luke Donald, winner of this title at Castle Stuart in 2011, is also lurking ominously on four-under – one ahead of defending champion Phil Mickelson, who dropped his only shot of the round at the last – but, without a shadow of doubt, it was McIlroy’s day in the Granite City.
Out in the first group, Broberg immediately set a target that would have stood throughout the proceedings if it hadn’t been for the brilliance of McIlroy. The 25-year-old signed for eight birdies, including four in a row from the eighth. Wind-assisted, admittedly, he hit a drive 425 yards to find the green at the par-4 13th.
It was one of those McIlroy masterclasses, with the man himself being particularly pleased to have covered the front nine, where the wind was mainly into the face and off the left, in three-under 33.
“It’s a tough golf course and, especially the way the wind has been the last couple of days [it was also blowy in the pro-am], you have to try and hang on playing the front nine. To cover that in three-under-par was a really good effort,” said the BMW PGA champion.
A 20-yard chip to three feet at the second set up the first of four birdies on that stretch. After his only bogey of the day – at the fourth – he then hit a “nice little shot into the wind” with an 8-iron to six feet at the fifth. With that wind at his back, a sand-wedge was despatched to 15 feet at the par-3 eighth before he took advantage of getting a “little lucky” with a leaked tee shot at the ninth by hitting a 7-iron from the right rough to around eight feet.
From start to finish, his ball control was exquisite, hence the glint in his eye as he talked about some of the different shots he’d conjured up and the different distances they were flying, depending on where the wind was coming from.
“I hit a couple of 4-irons that I didn’t hit hard and one on the seventh was just like a half shot,” he said. “It was nice to see it go out really low and go the distance I wanted it to. I normally hit a 4-iron through the air 225 yards but today that one on the seventh pitched about 160.”
The group in front, which included Ian Poulter, was still on the green when his drive found it at the 13th.
“I think it plays 436 to the middle of the green and I was maybe a few yards short of it,” he said, smiling. “It was wind assisted, downhill and in firm conditions, but it was a good drive.
“I knocked it on the green yesterday in the pro-am so I was pretty sure of what line to take.”
Broberg, a 27-year-old from Stockholm, overcame a 4am rise to produce a flawless six-birdie effort, maintaining the form that saw him come into this event on the back of finishing third in the Irish Open then, last weekend, 12th in the French Open.
He earned an instant step up to the main Tour after winning three times in four weeks on the Challenge Tour in 2012, but was out for six months last season due to a combination of an ingrowing toe nail on his left foot and a chest injury.
“I was struggling to walk because of the ingrowing toe nail and it required three surgeries,” he revealed after a round that was ignited by a birdie at the first.
According to some of his fellow Tour players, Broberg’s practice regime is so exhausting that it almost makes Vijay Singh, long renowned for hitting ball after ball, look lazy in comparison.
“Nothing,” he replied to being asked if he had any interests away from the course. “Golf is my life.”
Gonzalez, who lost out along with Stephen Gallacher to Tommy Fleetwood in a play-off for the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles last year, had moved ahead of McIlroy after getting to eight-under but then dropped two shots in the final six holes.
“It’s one of my best rounds this year and that’s why I’m very happy now,” confessed the 44-year-old from Rosario. “To make 65 on that wonderful course, with my son on the bag, that’s great.”
So, too, he admitted, was Argentina’s success in reaching Sunday’s World Cup final after their penalty-shoot success over the Netherlands on Wednesday night.
“I’m feeling my voice a little,” said a hoarse Gonzalez of watching that pre-event treat.
Out in 37 without a single birdie, Hoey transformed his day by storming home in six-under-par, a run that included an eagle-2 at the 13th then two birdies to finish. “There are a couple of holes on the back nine where you can risk taking a driver – one of them being the 13th, where I hit it to ten feet,” reported the 35-year-old, who grew up playing links golf in his native Northern Ireland.
Alongside Donald, whose flawless effort was carved out in the company of Mickelson, are one of his compatriots, Richard Bland, as well as the Marc Warren and David Drysdale.