Published 15/07/2011 | 05:00
IRELAND'S Northern Lights blazed on the ancient links at Royal St George's as Rory McIlroy's long-time mentor Darren Clarke and best mate in golf Graeme McDowell stole the US Open champion's thunder at the British Open.
Tens of thousands were lured to the fairway ropes at Sandwich early yesterday by the prospect of seeing fireworks as sensational as those produced by golf's Celtic Tiger as he marched to his record-breaking first Major victory at Congressional last month.
Instead, McIlroy (22) needed to show other equally important qualities, like patience, maturity and true grit, during a grim battle for survival as gales gusting up to 30mph made a snarling dragon of Royal St George's.
To his credit, McIlroy made a reasonably good fist of it, maintaining his composure after the body blow of two early bogeys to grind out a first round of one-over-par 71. It would leave him six off the lead shared by Thomas Bjorn and Tom Lewis, but still very much alive in this tournament.
The first-round 65s posted by 'Old Tom' and 'Young Tom' were astonishing -- Bjorn's because his was achieved in the worst of the morning weather and Lewis' because it's the lowest score ever compiled by an amateur at the British Open, beating the 66 by Justin Rose in 1998 and Tiger Woods in '96.
Lewis (20), from Nick Faldo's home town of Welwyn Garden City, has 'previous' at Royal St George's, winning the British Boys Championship here in 1999.
Named after five-time Major champion Tom Watson, with whom he played yesterday, he won the St Andrews Links Trophy last month and then shot 63 and 65 in qualifying on the nearby links at Rye to make it into the British Open for the first time.
He is the first amateur to hold or share the British Open lead since Michael Bonallack in 1968, taking full advantage as benign afternoon weather turned Sandwich into a veritable pussy cat.
Yet with every respect to Lewis, Clarke and McDowell -- two vastly experienced professionals who grew up on the links at Portrush -- should make a more lasting impact at this British Open.
McDowell (31) the 2010 US Open champion, is respected as one of the most dogged fighters in golf. He needed to draw deep on that resilience and the calming influence of his English caddie Ken Comboy to recover from "a horrible start" which left him three-over through five holes to post a 68 and join Clarke in a share of seventh on two-under.
"I had three days of perfect preparation, a nice warm-up this morning and then walked onto the first tee and just put one of my worst swings of the week on it," said McDowell of the wayward drive which led to his double-bogey six at the first.
After missing the fairway, "all I could do with my second shot was just hit it over the back and I pulled a horrible lie," he added. "It was absolute pure sand back there. I make six and walk to the second tee wondering what the hell happened."
Comboy came into his own at that point. "You've got to rely on your caddie and Ken effectively talked me down off the parapet out there," McDowell admitted. "My head was spinning after a few holes -- that's what this course and Major championships can do to you.
"I guess maybe four or five years ago, I wouldn't have been able to turn that around but I'm a little bit more of an experienced player nowadays. I was able to hang in there and keep myself well in the tournament."
McDowell reckoned he might not have been able to come back from the brink had he not holed a 10-foot putt for par at the second.
Though he would drop another shot after cracking a chip through the green at five, the Ulsterman reaped rich dividends from "a few tweaks" he made to his putter, including a new grip, as he picked up six birdies on the way to the finish and played the back nine in 31 strokes -- four-under-par.
As one might expect of someone who lives in Portrush and does most of his practice on the famous Dunluce Links, Clarke is revelling at St George's, especially after a session with mind guru Dr Bob Rotella clicked the on-switch on his putter.
"Bob Rotella's an old friend of mine," he explained. "I hadn't seen him for some time but, luckily, I was able to catch up with him this week. While my ball-striking and tee-to-green stuff has been fine, the putter hadn't ... but today it was very good."
A winner in Mallorca in May, Clarke's new-found confidence in the flat stick allowed him shift up to a different gear yesterday. While he made three bogeys after missing the fairway at one and driving into bunkers at seven and 12, five sweet birdies, including a monster 50-footer from the back fringe at the 10th, more than compensated.
This is Clarke's best round at the British Open since 2004, while he registered the most recent of his three top-10s in 19 appearances at golf's oldest Major when he finished third at Lytham in 2001.
Asked if he still had enough gas in the tank to sustain his challenge over 72 holes, he retorted: "Come on, I'm not that old yet. I'm only 42, though I still behave as if I'm 14. Importantly, I'm enjoying it and this golf course is fantastic."
Padraig Harrington also spent time on Dr Rotella's couch this week but the Dubliner patently still is seeking trust in his short game and revealed that he must become "less demanding on myself" after a frustrating first-round 73.
"It was one of those days. I missed a few greens and didn't chip it very well. I'm eight behind but there's still 54 holes and this tournament is far from over," added Harrington, wearing a natty tweed flat-cap this week in support of Testicular Cancer after a member of the Wilson back-room team, just 30, was diagnosed with the disease.
The massive galleries following McIlroy through cold, dismal weather early yesterday had to wait until the eighth hole before seeing the Holywood star land his first birdie.
Yet there was much to admire in the youngster's maturity after he stumbled to deflating bogeys at the first (where he rolled his 70-foot putt from the back fringe eight feet past and missed the one back) and third (where his ball took an unlucky bounce into the back rough).
Though plainly having trouble gauging the especially slow pace of greens which were single cut, watered and not rolled because of the forecast for windy weather, McIlroy was proud to maintain his composure.
"I know better than most people that you can put yourself out of the golf tournament on a day like this," he said. "So it was nice to stay patient and go out and shoot a decent score. I could have hit a few more fairways and I missed a few putts but mentally I was very good.
"It's fantastic to get that support and, hopefully, I can give them something to shout about."
The British Open
Live, BBC1/Setanta Irl 9.0