Open Championship report: Rory McIlroy shoots 79 at Royal Portrush

Rory McIlroy on a nightmare first day at Portrush
Rory McIlroy on a nightmare first day at Portrush

The Open Championship is bigger than Rory McIlroy - he said so himself - but the first day of the 148th renewal revolved around the Northern Irishman, and the search for a replacement after he had clumsily let slip a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

McIlroy's opening tee-shot, more anticipated than the one by Darren Clarke which opened the tournament, hooked and trundled to a place which was out of bounds by a few feet. It took no more than 20 minutes and less than 500 yards to all but eliminate him from the list of potential winners.

It was hard not to feel sorry for the most famous man in Portrush, who looked lost and alone as he tried to process a shocking quadruple bogey, all while being forced to pick out a club and swing at a ball so that he could take another step closer to the sanctity of the clubhouse. One hole to kill a dream, even by golf's standards, was impossibly cruel.

In the end, McIlroy avoided the ignominy of his second ever round of 80 in The Open - but only by a shot. At eight-over, he's 13 behind unlikely leader J.B. Holmes, the sort of out-of-form slugger who, by rights, ought to have been the one toiling near the white posts on what's an innocuous opening hole.


Leaderboard

-5 Holmes

-4 Lowry

-3 Noren, Simpson, Garcia, Frittelli, MacIntyre, Aphibarnrat, Fox, Hatton, Fleetwood, Koepka, Westwood, Finau


Holmes in fact began his round with a bogey, but from there gradually climbed the leaderboard in the same gear that he does everything. It was only at the last that he reached five-under, which meant no time for the sort of step back which cost Jon Rahm, and an opening 66 means he'll start his second round as the man to catch.

Gladly for those in pursuit, this slow coach of the circuit is there for the taking and it's Rahm, Brooks Koepka, Tommy Fleetwood and Shane Lowry who should fancy their chances of building on excellent starts on a day for all the seasons bar the one we're meant to be in.

Lowry was first to make a move, his sharpness around the greens allowing him to polish off an opening 67 without the frustration of ending on a backward step. Birdies at the third, fifth, ninth, 10th and 12th saw the Irishman make his best ever start to an Open Championship, a continuation of the form he's shown all year.

There were no real moments of alarm for Fleetwood, bogey-free and rarely out of position, while Koepka felt that had the putter fired he might have once again been at the top, where he's at his most familiar. Only a slightly heavy-handed pitch and an errant putt at the 17th cost the four-time major champion a shot, but it didn't bother him in the slightest.

By contrast, Rahm spoke of distinctly separate parts to his version of a 68. The Spaniard, perhaps the in-form player in the field, played major-winning golf for three hours or more, but over the last few holes became careless. In the end, a series of misfired approach shots resulted in two given away at the end of a round which was at times mesmerising.

All of these players will accept much of the same on Friday, but for McIlroy only an extraordinary round will earn him a place in the field at the weekend.

Not that he'd go as far as to rule himself out altogether. McIlroy knows tournaments can be won from the cut line because he's done it, and Justin Rose, who carded a rock-solid 69 here today, almost stole this tournament in that fashion at Carnoustie last year. It happens often enough not to be written off altogether.

It cannot be done with the mistakes McIlroy made on Thursday, though.

First were two pulled irons which became pushed drives as he fought for a way to get on top of Portrush. To his credit, through the middle part of the round he did that, picking up shots at the seventh and ninth, and by the time he reached Calamity Corner there was a score to be made.

Yet on this strange day, there was time for another two-hole horror show, first an embarrassing waft of the putter which made for a double-bogey at 16, then a tangle with the rough on his way to a closing triple. Having started the day with an eight, he ended it with a seven, and the Open dream is all but gone.

Those hoping that Tiger Woods would whip these record crowds into an afternoon frenzy found the death of that dream slower but no less painful. Woods' round never got going and by the time a birdie did come, it was sufficiently late as to warrant an ironic celebration from the man himself. He's one ahead of McIlroy but surely less likely to conjure something special.

Fifty or more players shot par or better at a course considered hard but fair. There were birdies - Ryan Fox made six of them in nine holes for a closing 29, the first in Open history - but, as McIlroy showed, there's nothing forgiving about the sides of these fairways.

In the end we're left with the prospect of no Rory McIlroy this weekend, whether he's able to look up from the bottom of this leaderboard and smell the roses or not. As such there will be those heading to bed in Portrush tonight with a new mantra playing in their minds: this was never about McIlroy. The only trouble is, that's just not true.

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