McIlroy’s Open quest starts strongly at St Andrews

The early starters took advantage of benign conditions as the St Andrews Old Course was left largely defenceless on the opening morning of the 150th Open Championship.

Pre-tournament favourite Rory McIlroy shot a six-under-par 66 to finish two behind early American pacesetter Cameron Young, who hit a bogey-free 64.

Australian Cameron Smith, who won the Players Championship in March, is at five under, while English amateur Barclay Brown is keeping good company at four under with world number one Scottie Scheffler, Norway’s Viktor Hovland and LIV Golf trio Lee Westwood, Dustin Johnson and Talor Gooch.

Two more LIV rebels in American Bryson DeChambeau and England’s Ian Poulter are a shot further back, along with 2016 Masters winner Danny Willett.

Defending champion Collin Morikawa opened with a level-par 72.

Three-time winner Tiger Woods slumped to a six-over 78, while England’s US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick signed for a 72 after crawling round the Old Course in six hours nine minutes.

The pace of play is notoriously slow because of how compact the course is and players criss-crossing each other, or waiting for greens to clear on driveable par-four holes.

McIlroy lays down marker

Northern Ireland’s McIlroy came into this week as favourite and underlined his threat with a sensational 55-foot putt for birdie on the first hole, and a run of three birdies from the fifth that saw him quickly move to four under.

“It was great to get off to a good start,” he told BBC Sport. “It hasn’t been my strong suit in recent seasons but at the US PGA Championship, US Open and now here, I’ve got off to a nice start and it’s all you can ask for.”

The world number two, who won the Canadian Open last month and has finished in the top 10 of each of the year’s preceding three majors, talked before the tournament about how “boring” golf wins championships and said after his round: “I’ll take boring all day if that’s what boring is.

“There were a couple of adventures in there too, but for the most part it was pretty stress free.”

Poor second shots on the ninth and 10th holes checked his progress but his solitary bogey, on the 13th – which came after he cosied a 90-foot par putt to tap-in range – was atoned for with a superb up and down from the rough for birdie on the long 14th.

He then made terrific par saves on the 16th and 17th holes after scratchy second shots left him tricky pitches.

And the 2014 Open champion then nudged in for birdie at the last after hitting his drive to the left edge of the green and lagging his 85-foot eagle putt to six inches.

‘I have not heard one heckle’

No Englishman has won the Claret Jug since Nick Faldo lifted it for a third time in 1992. That’s 30 years of hurt for those south of the border. And while it’s clearly early in the championship, there is cause for optimism with veterans Westwood and Poulter making solid starts, while Brown put himself in prime position to win the silver medal as low amateur.

Brown, 21, received a text message of support from fellow Sheffield native and US Open champion Fitzpatrick after qualifying for The Open by winning a 36-hole qualifying event.

They both learned their game at the Hallamshire Club and Brown, who holed a 45-foot birdie putt on the par-four 17th Road Hole, said: “I’m very pleased with that, it was very enjoyable. I managed to keep it relatively stress free.

“I was unbelievably nervous at the start. But once I got through the first couple of holes, I kind of calmed down a little bit and hit some good shots.”

Westwood is making his sixth Open appearance at St Andrews, while Poulter is on his fifth outing. Both overcame nervy openings though, with the former recovering from a double bogey on the par-four second to hole seven birdies in his 68.

Poulter, who received some boos on the first tee given his involvement in the LIV Golf start-up, hooked his opening tee shot five feet from being out of bounds, which is some feat considering the fairway is 129 yards wide.

He then holed an incredible 150-foot putt for an eagle two on the driveable par-four ninth hole.

When asked about the jeers, Poulter said: “I didn’t hear one. I thought I got a great reception on the first tee. I have not heard one heckle.”

And when pushed about the reaction from the R&A and Woods earlier this week to the Saudi-funded series he has joined at the expense of being suspended from the PGA Tour, he said: “I’m staying out of the way. I’m not reading social media.

“I just want to play golf, right? I can only do my job. If I listen to a lot of nonsense then I’m going to get distracted – that’s never going to be good for me. I’ll leave it to the clever people to figure stuff out, and I’ll just play golf.”

Westwood, who has also joined LIV Golf, did not experience any hostility during his round and accused the media of “stoking it up”.

“I think the general public just want to go out there and see good golf, no matter where it is being played or who is playing it,” he added.

Scheffler leads the late charge

American Scheffler, who won the Masters in April, bucked the trend of later players who were out in windier conditions by racing to four under after nine holes and playing the tougher back nine in level par.

“It was a lot of fun trying to figure things out out there,” said Scheffler. “It was just so firm out there, and the wind was blowing. It was just playing tough.”

He matched two-time major winner Johnson, who made his score on those closing holes, with four birdies in his final eight, and Gooch, who picked up a rare birdie on the 17th.

But the hopes of Woods, who reminded McIlroy earlier in the week that he was going for a third Claret Jug at St Andrews, began to sink in the Swilcan Burn on the first hole. A double-bogey start became six over after seven, with another double bogey.

Successive birdies on the ninth and 10th holes briefly raised hopes of a fightback, but he signed for a 78.

“That was probably highest score I could have shot,” said the 15-time major champion, who is still feeling the effects of the February 2021 car crash that nearly ended his career. “I just wasn’t very good on the greens.

“It looks like I’m going to have to shoot 66 [on Friday] to have a chance. I need to do it.”

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