HOYLAKE, United Kingdom: Rory McIlroy shot a flawless six-under 66 to lead by one stroke after the first round of the British Open on Thursday on a day of low scoring which also saw fit-again Tiger Woods find some form.
The 25-year-old Irishman’s opening salvo was the second best round he has carded at the Open, bettered only by the course record of 63 he shot in the first round at St Andrews four years ago.
On that occasion he came back to the Old Course the next day and slumped to a horrendous 80 that wrecked his title hopes.
McIlroy finished a gripping, sun-drenched day at Royal Liverpool one shot clear of rising star Matteo Manassero, who had seven birdies en route to a 67, the 21-year-old Italian’s best Open score in four appearances.
Two more Italians – the Molinari brothers Edoardo and Francesco – were a further stroke back at four under 68, level with Americans Jim Furyk and Brooks Koepka, Sergio Garcia of Spain and world number one Adam Scott of Australia.
In what was a top class leaderboard, nine players were camped on three-under 69 including Woods, who was playing in just his second tournament since undergoing back surgery in late March.
The 38-year-old American, who won at Hoylake the last time the Open was held there in 2006, bogeyed his first two holes, but three straight birdies from the 11th saw him move to two under and put a visible spring in his step as he closed out a morale-boosting round.
McIlroy looked full of confidence from the start in a young guns grouping with Jordan Spieth of the United States and Hideki Matsuyama of Japan.
He was three under after just six holes and further birdies came at 10, 12 and 16 as he quickly stamped his credentials as tournament favourite.
The two-time major winner could have gone even lower had he not hit his second from the rough into a tough greenside pot bunker at the par-five last.
“Anytime you shoot 66 at the Open Championship, you’re going to be pleased,” said McIlroy, who missed the cut at Muirfield last year.
“We had perfect scoring conditions out there this morning. There wasn’t much wind early on. The wind started to pick up a little bit on the back nine.
“But there was plenty of opportunities to make birdies. I was able to take a few of them. Another great start and looking forward to getting back out there tomorrow.”
Manassero, tipped for golfing greatness since he won the British Amateur title in 2009 at the age of 16 said that he was happy to fly the Italian flag at Hoylake with the Molinari brothers.
“So very good for Italian golf. We got off to a fast start, all of us. And when you’ve got three, you don’t have only one, there is more chances they’re going to stay up until Sunday,” he said.
“And it’s going to be wonderful to have a few Italians up there on Sunday afternoon. It’s going to be fun, if there is.”
Defending champion Phil Mickelson struggled to get going as he came in with a 74, top home hope Justin Rose settled for a 72 and US Open champion Martin Kaymer a 73.
The champion of two years ago, Ernie Els, had a nightmare day after hitting a young spectator with his first tee shot.
The South African looked upset on the way to a soul-destroying 79.
Woods, playing his first major of the year, was the focus of attention early on in front of a packed gallery.
The player who has dominated world golf over the last 17 years came into Hoylake at a crucial juncture in his stupendous career.
The latest in a succession of swing-stress related injuries over the last few years saw him revert to back surgery in late March to relieve a pain that left him at times unable even to get out of bed.
Woods, 18 months shy of his 40th birthday, says that for the first time in years he is pain free and ready to go as he once again hones in on his lifelong obsession of matching and finally surpassing the all-time major record of 18 wins held by Jack Nicklaus since 1986.
Many though questioned the wisdom of his decision to return to action so quickly after his back surgery raising question marks over his physical and mental capacities at top tournament level.
Those doubts looked reasonable after his faltering start, but the triple birdie run on the back nine indicated otherwise and Woods looked energised as he came off the 18th green.
“I figured out how to manage my way around the golf course after an awful start, but got back to even par on the turn,” he said.