Sunday 25 February 2018

McIlroy leads as Tiger stalks

Rory McIlroy shot an opening 66 at Royal Liverpool
Rory McIlroy shot an opening 66 at Royal Liverpool

The Open Championship enjoyed a case of deja vu on Thursday with glorious weather at Royal Liverpool and a certain Tiger Woods high on the leaderboard in the opening round.

But it was a man who was not present the last time the event was staged on the Wirral in 2006 who shone brightest, Rory McIlroy carding a flawless 66 to lead after day one of a major championship for the first time since the 2011 US Open, which he went on to win by eight shots.

McIlroy continued his trend of getting off to flying starts in tournaments in 2014, firing birdies at the second, fifth and sixth to be out in 32 and adding more on the 10th, 12th and 16th.

At six under par he held a one-shot lead over Italian Matteo Manassero, whose compatriots Edoardo and Francesco Molinari were a shot further back in a high-class group also containing world number one Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia, American duo Jim Furyk and Brooks Koepka and Ireland's Shane Lowry.

Scott and Lowry were among just 13 players from the second half of the field to break par as the wind picked up in the afternoon, with defending champion Phil Mickelson two over, Justin Rose level par and Lee Westwood one under.

Woods, playing his first major of the year after undergoing back surgery on March 31, was lurking ominously on three under par, the 38-year-old only using his driver once, on the par-five 16th, as he did in 2006. On that occasion the driver was never used again on the rock-hard links.

The course was much greener this time around but the ball was still bounding along the fairways and McIlroy was delighted to take advantage.

"Any time you shoot 66 at the Open Championship, you're going to be pleased," the 25-year-old said. "We had perfect scoring conditions out there this morning. There wasn't much wind early on and there were plenty of opportunities to make birdies and I was able to take a few of them.

"It's another great start and, yeah, looking forward to getting back out there tomorrow."

That was a reference to his unfortunate habit of following good rounds on Thursday with bad ones of Friday, the latest example being scores of 64 and 78 in the Scottish Open last week. In 2014 he is 50 under par in the first round and nine over in the second.

"Whenever I go out and play on Thursdays there's not really many expectations," added McIlroy, who also led the 2010 Open after an opening 63 at St Andrews but followed it with an 80 in atrocious conditions. "You're going out there and you're trying to find a rhythm and you're just trying to play your way into the round," he added.

"When you go back out on Friday after a good score you know what you can do, so you're going out with some expectations compared to Thursday. I think I've just got to approach it like that, start off trying to hit solid shots the first few holes and play my way into the round, just like I did today."

Woods missed the cut in his comeback event at the end of last month and looked set for more woe after dropping shots on his first two holes - he only had two bogeys in the first 36 holes in 2006 - but crucially saved par from eight feet on the fourth and picked up his first birdie of the day on the next.

A hat-trick of birdies from the 11th - where he holed from off the green - was followed by a bogey on the 14th, but Woods responded with birdies on the 15th and 16th to return a 69.

"I knew I could do it. That's why it was so important for me to play at Congressional," he said. "At Congressional I made some terrible mistakes mentally. My decisions weren't very crisp and I wasn't decisive enough. Today was totally different and consequently I shot a better score.

"I'm getting stronger, I'm getting faster, I'm getting more explosive. The ball is starting to travel again and those are all positive things."

The negative things as far as Woods was concerned were a repeat of the distractions in 2006 from spectators' phones and cameras which led to a ban the following year.

He backed off his second shot to the 18th twice, stopping midway through his downswing the second time, and said: "There were a lot of cameras and we were backing off a lot of shots, it was tough. Unfortunately people don't put the phones on silent and some of the professional guys were getting on the trigger a little early."

Mobile phones and other devices were allowed back into the Open in 2012 and the R&A have installed a "Wi-Fi mesh" around the course to allow spectators to use them to keep up to date with the action.

Asked if catering to spectators in this manner was something of a double-edged sword, Woods added: "Just put it on silent. I've had numerous years of dealing with this. There's a lot of moving parts out there. And you've just got to stay focused and plod my way around."

In a statement, R&A executive director of championships Johnnie Cole-Hamilton said: "We are delighted to have big crowds here enjoying the golf and I know there are many fans here who are experiencing the Open for the first time this week.

"We urge them and all our spectators to keep their phones on silent and remind them that taking photographs on Championship days is not permitted."

Press Association

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