Rory McIlroy frustrated himself and his legions of supporters at Royal St George’s with an opening round of 70 that left him some way off the lead but perhaps, just perhaps, still in contention. Statistics show that 52 of the last 60 winners of the Open were within four shots of the lead after the first round. The Northern Irishman is six strokes behind Louis Oosthuizen after the opening day’s play, his even par score leaving him tied for 48th place.
McIlroy missed the cut at the Scottish Open a week ago, not the greatest of omens and an unwelcome reminder of the nightmare that befell him at Portrush two years ago. He started with a quadruple bogey in 2019 and was unable to recover. The clock is ticking down on seven years since his last victory in a major.
Despite four bogeys and a consistent inconsistency, however, McIlroy showed flashes of excellent play. Had some of his pent-up putting gone half an inch the other way, the story would have been a much cheerier one. A birdie on the 18th put a final gloss on the afternoon’s events too.
The round had in fact started off at a canter. At the first, a delightful wedge shot nearly went in before he tidied up quickly to record a birdie and set the crowd cheering. The trick was nearly repeated at the second hole, only for his putting to come up short, a budding theme.
The enthusiasm of the crowd diminished as the opening holes progressed, McIlroy’s form deteriorating in the manner that has become too familiar in recent years. After finding the fairway on the par-four 5th, he proceeded to play himself into trouble, coming up short of the green, only to hit back with an approach shot that came within a few feet. The putt was not a formality but as McIlroy borrowed from right to left he gave it too much power, and the ball rattled out of the hole – a bogey.
On his next tee shot, on the par-three 6th, he appeared to be distracted mid-swing and he ended up in a bunker. Again, an impressive second shot followed only to be undone by a putt that lacked the necessary firmness.
A second consecutive bogey then became a third at the 7th. The first par five of the course, McIlroy flew left into the rough off the tee, then after finding the fairway with a sand wedge, returned to the long grass on the right.
His fourth stroke was a beauty, chipping to within six feet, but his putt was just as tense as those that had preceded it and could only shave the edge of the hole.
The bad streak was broken on the 8th after a wonderful approach shot off the left of the green avoided the dunes. The 2014 champion – at Royal Liverpool – this time maintained his momentum to sink the birdie putt calmly and generate a cheer from the crowd after a period of quiet. He secured a confident par at the 9th to reach the turn in 36.
With the wind picking up, none of the afternoon’s groups had managed to match the form of the morning. McIlroy’s playing partner, Australia’s Cameron Smith, was perhaps as eye-catching as any but his consistently assertive play only earned him nine consecutive pars, going out in 35.
Smith’s play was confident, particularly his putting action, which was quick and decisive and he finished the round on one under. His style provided a contrast to McIlroy who seemed to be veering constantly between one mind and another. For every poor shot, however, there was an impressive one, striking a balance that meant his final score still gave him an opportunity to build into the weekend.
McIlroy missed a birdie chance on the 10th. On the tricky par-three 11, another wayward tee shot was almost bailed out by a 15ft putt only for it to stay out of the hole for another bogey.
On the 12th, McIlroy once again ended up in the rough. A wondrous second shot, however, both threw up a clod of soil as big as the Northern Irishman’s head and landed the ball eight feet from the flag.
But after Smith broke his streak to record his first birdie, and the third player in the group, Patrick Reed, followed through to do the same, McIlroy’s putt fell short to his audible frustration. Par again.
There were groans on the green of the 14th, as McIlroy saw an eagle chance come up just short after an aggressive approach on the 547-yard hole. He recorded the birdie successfully, however.
Three calm holes followed, with McIlroy scoring par on each. With the ship steadied there was a chance to steal back some positioning on the par-four 18th and he obliged, sinking a not uncomplicated 10-yard putt with ease, much to his obvious delight.