Rory McIlroy made a flying start to the 143rd Open Championship, which got underway in sun-kissed conditions at Royal Liverpool yesterday.
A flawless six-under-par 66 – his best opening salvo in the game’s oldest major since a 63 at St Andrews four years ago – earned him pole position on the Wirral after the first circuit.
He leads by one from Matteo Manassero, with two other Italians – Edoardo and Francesco Molinari – a shot further back alongside American duo Jim Furyk and Brooks Koepka as well as Spaniard Sergio Garcia and Australian Adam Scott.
It wasn’t that long ago that a similar start by McIlroy might have been ominous.
After all, he turned both the 2011 US Open and 2012 US PGA Championship into one-horse races. Once he hit the front, there was no stopping him.
When he has been in that position this season, though, McIlroy has got in the way of himself, especially on a Friday. It’s become a day when he probably doesn’t look forward to getting out of bed due to the pattern that has developed.
On numerous occasions, Thursday’s good work has been undone by shocking efforts on Friday. As recently as last week, he opened the Scottish Open with a 64 only to follow it with a 78.
It has definitely become a mental thing. It is something he is determined to end once and for all today. “I had a bad afternoon at Augusta (following a 71 with a 77) and just made the cut,” recalled McIlroy of when he became aware of his second-day shortcomings this season.
“Then I started off horrifically at Quail Hollow on Friday afternoon (when he tacked a 76 on to an opening 69) before doing the same thing at Sawgrass (70-74). After three tournaments in a row, that’s when I was conscious of it.”
Having been three-over through nine, he didn’t mind that pattern continuing in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, especially as he went on to claim his only success of the season so far there. “[But] then Memorial was obviously the biggest one,” he added of a first-round 63 in that being followed by a 78.
Even Jack Nicklaus, the game’s greatest player, was baffled by that particular collapse.
“I didn’t mention it to him – he mentioned it to me,” said McIlroy of a chat that he had with the 18-times major winner in the wake of that. “He said, ‘how the hell can you shoot 63 then 78?’ ”
Had Nicklaus offered any advice to overcome such contrasting efforts? “We didn’t talk specifically about my previous Friday struggles,” he added. “What we talked about was just holding a round together. And he was never afraid to make a change in the middle of the round, whether to his swing or strategy, to get it back on track.”
After missing two good birdie chances in the first three holes, McIlroy was soon making hay in the sun. “My 63 at St Andrews was a better round of golf, but any time you shoot 66 at the Open Championship, you are going to be pleased,” said the 25-year-old. “It was a solid round of golf. I hit it into the spots I needed to.”
As a 16-year-old, Manassero played with Garcia and Tom Watson in the opening two rounds in this event at Turnberry in 2009. He missed the cut in his two appearances since then but is off to the “perfect start” this time. Bunkered off the tee, last year’s PGA champion then holed his third from 160 yards for an opening birdie.
He reckons this is a course where the occasional “risk” has to be taken. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be with driver, it could even be with a 4-iron sometimes,” he said after picking up birdies at all three of the par-5s coming home.
Garcia tied for fifth here in 2006 – the year he wore canary yellow when playing with Tiger Woods, in his traditional last-day red, in the final round. As was the case then, he opened with a four-under-par effort, which was ignited by three birdies in the opening five holes. The first of them was almost an eagle.
“Whenever I come back here, I always remember my hole-out on the second hole on Saturday with a 9-iron and, funny enough, I almost holed out today with the same club at the first. I hit the pin and went to two feet,” said the 33-year-old.
His round also included a chip in at the 11th. “It was perfect timing as it came straight after a bogey at the par-5, which always stings a bit,” he said of that momentum changer.
At Muirfield 12 months ago, Koepka started his Open debut with an 8. Last week, his two cards in the Scottish Open were peppered with disasters, including a 10 at the 12th in round two. “I got a lot of bad breaks in Aberdeen and everyone was terrible,” he groaned.
Since winning the Scottish Hydro Challenge at Aviemore just over a year ago, his star has risen steadily.
In last month’s US Open, the 24-year-old finished joint-fourth behind runaway winner Martin Kaymer.
“Everyone was playing for second really at Pinehurst and it was nice to put myself in contention for that,” admitted Koepka after a seven-birdie effort.
Scott, second and third in the last two years, was the only afternoon starter to make his presence felt on the leaderboard after going out in four-under 31 – the day’s best.
In contrast, Tiger Woods, winner here in 2006, did his good work on the back nine – four-under, too – as he opened with a 69.
Phil Mickelson, the defending champion, strayed out of bounds at the last in his 74 – one more than US Open champion Martin Kaymer – while Ernie Els, the winner two years ago, slumped to a harrowing 79. He three-putted from barely a foot in running up a 7 at the first then hit a spectator in the face later in the round. “There was blood everywhere,” reported the South African of that unsettling experience.
All in all, an eventful day. What now lies ahead today for McIlroy in particular?