Golf: Great Scott - Sizzling 64 sends Aussie soaring into lead as McIlroy keeps his head
ADAM SCOTT won the 'phoney war' with an effortless first round 64, but Rory McIlroy and Padraig Harrington were the undoubted darlings of the fans at Royal Lytham and St Annes yesterday.
The two Irish golfers drew the loudest roars at the 2012 British Open from the packed grandstands surrounding Lytham's 18th green when they polished off sweet birdie putts in the gloaming.
McIlroy thrilled spectators with his fighting birdie-par-birdie finish to his opening 67 after an unsettling incident on the 15th hole, where his tee shot cracked off the head of a 16-year-old spectator, Jason Blue from Bristol, and ricocheted inches out of bounds.
"If he'd headed it the other way, it would have been on the fairway," McIlroy joked later. "The most important thing is that he was okay, because I'd have felt terrible if it had been worse than it was."
Blue was more concerned about where his hero's ball ended up than the bloody wound on the back of his head. Bandaged on the spot by paramedics, he posed happily for photographers with the glove McIlroy gave him.
Apart from the 23-year-old Ulsterman's autograph, it was inscribed with just one word "Sorry" and a smiley face.
Forced to go back to the tee after his ball was found lying beside a burger stand, McIlroy had further cause for regret as he made a double-bogey six ... yet he responded superbly to this setback, driving the green at 336-yards 16th before two-putting from 20 feet for birdie.
McIlroy then hit his approach so far left of the green at 17, his ball landed precariously close to TV camera operatives ... but he fashioned a fabulous up-and-down par, holing from nine feet.
The piece de resistance came at 18, however. A tad lucky when his tee shot skipped off the shoulder of a fairway bunker and ran on for 15 yards, with little more than a pitching wedge in his hand, McIlroy hit his approach to six feet, capping it all with a deft putt.
Two-under through the turn after sweet birdies at seven and eight -- he'd made a tentative three-putt bogey at 10 -- he did not appear entirely comfortable with his game, especially off the tee.
Yet one could sense McIlroy's confidence growing as he played the back nine and that fabulous finish should help banish any doubts during the 2011 US Open Champion's recent form blip.
"Standing on the 16th tee, my goal was to get back to three-under for the day and I was able to do that," he said.
"So that birdie on 18 will make dinner taste very nice tonight."
McIlroy joined Tiger Woods, impressive fellow Ulsterman Graeme McDowell, Masters champion Bubba Watson, three-times Major Champion Ernie Els, Toshinori Muto, Steve Stricker and Peter Hanson in an eight-way tie for sixth on three-under.
In contrast, Harrington needed that birdie at 18 to bring him back to level par after a difficult afternoon in which he felt he'd paid too much respect to the occasion on a golf course made vulnerable by utterly benign conditions.
"I think I've too much respect for Major tournaments, that's where I went wrong today," said the Dubliner. "Just a little bit too tentative and cautious and not wanting to make mistakes in conditions where you could be a little more aggressive than you normally might be at a Major."
With it's 206 bunkers and thick rough, Lytham may be the most strategically challenging links on the Open rota. Yet in the absence of anything more than a gentle zephyr yesterday, its rain-softened fairways, receptive greens and a set of pins begging to be attacked, it certainly didn't play like an Open course.
Frankly, the 'real' Open Championship is unlikely to begin at Lytham until those sea breezes start to blow, though the forecast suggests that this may not happen until Sunday. Scott and the other early starters certainly got the best of the conditions and the Australian admitted: "It was just like a nice walk in the park today. It was not what we've experienced in the practice rounds."
Scott actually started slowly, making bogey at three after getting out of position. "I didn't want that to be the theme of my day, so I hit a good tee shot off four, which settled me down, and got going from there," he explained. A glittering string of birdies followed and Scott, seven-under through 16, found himself within touching distance of the first-ever 62 in a Major championship.
The chance of a place in history slipped out of Scott's grasp when he hit his two-iron tee shot at the last into the left rough, leading almost inevitably to bogey.
McDowell and Woods also enjoyed the best of a balmy morning, the Portrush man saying: "I felt really good. I've played plenty of these things to know that you've got to enjoy them -- get in a relaxed frame of mind, get your attitude correct for the day and accept you're going to make mistakes.
"I did that well today," said the 2010 US Open Champion, who holed from 35 feet on the front fringe for his first birdie of the day at three.
He might have picked up a couple more before making bogey out of a greenside bunker at the gruelling 592-yards sixth ... yet McDowell then completed a superb hat-trick of birdies at nine by hitting a glorious tee shot to inches at this 165-yards par three.
After another birdie at 11, McDowell was four-under as he approached the final five holes, a stretch he finds daunting, especially off the tee. He'd make two great par saves at 14 and 17, but dropped shots at 15 and 18.
"I think it's fair to describe the last five holes on this course as a conundrum," he said. "The tee shot at 14 doesn't really fit my eye, while the drive at 15 is really difficult because there's no way to take the bunkers out of play.
"Eighteen is a real toughie. It's a like a jigsaw piece down there," he smiled. "I was comparing the course to chess yesterday and a jigsaw today. I'm obviously a very exciting young fellow. Chess and jigsaws, that's me."
While Tiger Woods looked majestic as he picked-up four birdies in his opening seven holes, the applause he received from the relatively small 28,500 crowd (a figure dwarfed by the weekend attendances at the Irish Open at Royal Portrush) was somewhat restrained.
Woods could easily win his 15th Major this weekend, but McIlroy would be a far more popular Open champion.
Live, BBC 1/Setanta Ire 10.0
First round scores
B Snedeker (USA)
E Els (RSA), B Watson (USA), G McDowell, T Woods (USA), T Muto (Jap), R McIlroy, S Stricker (USA), P Hanson (Swe)
J Morrison, T Aiken (Rsa), S Pinckney (USA), A Hansen (Den), J Kruger (Rsa), A Lahiri (Ind), J Hicks (USA).
M Baldwin, A da Silva (Bra), T Jaidee (Thai), M Kuchar (USA), C Schwartzel (Rsa), T Oleson (Den). B Estes (USA), B Jones (Aus), S Alker (Aus), L Slattery), R Sterne (Rsa), F Molinari (Ita), F Jacobsen (Swe), M Leishman (Aus), T Potter Jnr (USA)
JM Singh (Ind), S Khan, K Stanley (USA), R Cabrera-Bello (Spa), V Singh (Fij), T Bjorn (Den), J Dufner (USA), M Laird (Sco), T Matteson (USA), A Townsend (Aus), KJ Choi (Kor), H Mahan (USA), J Senden (Aus), P Harrington, L Donald, R Goosen (Rsa), A Romero (Arg).
G Mulroy (Rsa), M Calcavecchia (USA), G Chalmers (Aus), MA Jimenez (Spa), B Haas (USA), D Love III (USA), N Watney (USA), I Poulter, Y Fujimoto (Jap), T Watson (USA), A Baddeley (Aus), W Bennett, D Whitnell, J Pagunsunan, G Owen, M Fraser (Aus), C Pettersson (Swe), H English (USA), G Fernandez-Costano (Spa), A Cabrera (Arg), B van Pelt (USA), K Bradley (USA), R Fowler (USA), A Noren (Swe), R Ramsay (Sco), A Hall (Aus)
T Hamilton (USA), J Daly (USA), R Jacquelin (Fra), S Cink (USA), S Garcia (Spa), S Tiley, L Glover (USA), C Howell III (USA), P Casey, M Wilson (USA), S Dyson, R Fisher, SM Bae (Kor), L Oosthuizen (Rsa), G Ogilby (Aus), T Taniguchi (Jap), J Furyk (USA), K Oda (Jap), T KeElly (USA)
B Lane, R Echenique (Arg), C Campbell (USA), J Wagner (USA), L Westwood, D Johnson (USA), K Na (USA), D Chopra (Swe), J Luiten (Ned), N Cullen (Aus), T Lehman (USA), P LArrazabal (Spa), G Havret (Fra), G Woodland (USA), B Grace (Rsa), P Mickelson (USA).
S Lyle, A Canizares (Spa), D Duval (USA), S Ames (Can), YE Yang (Kor), J Rose, R Ishikawa (Jap), S O'Hara, M Thompson (USA), M Siem (Ger), G Coetzee (Rsa), C Reavie (USA), T Immelman (Rsa), R Finch, J Byrd (USA), A Quiros (Spa), M Trapel*, A Georgiou (Rsa), MO Madsen (Den).
J Huh (USA), J Leonard (USA), A Dunbar*, B Kennedy (Aus), P Broadhurst, KT Kim (Kor), B Curtis (USA), R Allenby (Aus), P Marksaeng (Thai)
J Driscoll (USA), T Clark (Rsa), D Clarke, H Fujita (Jap), S Walker, E Saltman, I Keenan.
T Takayama (Jap), K Ichihara (Jap), M Kaymer (Ger), M Mamat, G Veenstra.