HOYLAKE, ENGLAND – Rory McIlroy had everything go his way on Thursday at the British Open.
A lovely summer day in England with abundant sunshine and minimal wind allowed him to attack Royal Liverpool. He made half his six birdies on the par 5s and kept bogeys off his card.
And on the day Tiger Woods made a promising return, McIlroy took the lead with a 6-under 66, his best score in nearly two years at a major.
Now if he can only find a way to get to the weekend.
McIlroy either set himself up for a good run at the claret jug or another dose of Friday failures. In what already has been an unusual year for golf, no trend is more mysterious than Boy Wonder going from awesome to awful overnight.
Six times in his last eight tournaments, he has had a nine-hole score of 40 or higher on Friday that has taken him out of the mix.
“It’s not like I’ve shot good scores in first rounds and haven’t backed them up before,” McIlroy said. “I’m used to doing that. I just haven’t done it recently. We’ll see what tomorrow brings and what weather it is and try and handle it as best I can.
“Hopefully,” he said, “it’s just one of those things and I’m able to turn it around tomorrow.”
Woods also would like to keep moving in the right direction. He got off to a troubling start with two quick bogeys, nearly made another one on the fourth hole, and then looked like a 14-time major champion when he ran off five birdies in six holes toward the end of his round for a 69.
Not bad for guy who had back surgery March 31, who started taking full swings only a month ago and who had not played in a major in 11 months.
“It felt good to be back out there competing again,” Woods said.
Such pristine weather — how long it lasts is the big unknown — gave just about everyone a chance to score. Matteo Manassero broke par in The Open for the first time since he was a 16-year-old amateur. He began his round by hitting into a pot bunker, blasting out to the fairway and holing out from 160 yards for birdie. He made five birdies on the back nine, three on the par 5s.
Francesco Molinari and Edoardo Molinari have games that are nothing alike, though they shot the same score. They were in a large group at 68 along with Jim Furyk, Sergio Garcia, Brooks Koepka, Shane Lowry and Adam Scott.
Even in tame conditions, the British Open can mete out punishment — to players, to spectators and even a golf club.
Phil Mickelson was trying to get back to even par when he hooked his approach to the 18th beyond the out-of-bounds stakes down the right side of the hole and had to scramble for a bogey and a 74. He hasn’t broken par at a major since winning at Muirfield last summer.
That still doesn’t top the bad day of Ernie Els. His opening tee shot hit a spectator in the face, and the sight of so much blood shook the Big Easy. When he got to the green, he missed a 1-foot putt, and then carelessly tried to back-hand the next one into the hole and missed that one. The triple bogey sent him to a 79.
Hideki Matsuyama as well as countrymen Koumei Oda and Yoshinobu Tsukada all fired three-under 69s.
Matsuyama got off to a strong start, carding birdies at Nos. 3, 5, and 7 to navigate the outward nine in 32 strokes.
Though he stumbled with back-to-back bogeys at Nos. 12 and 13, Matsuyama managed two late birdies to cap off his round. He sank a birdie putt from the fringe on No. 16, and after hitting driver for the first time of the day on the par-5 No. 18, he reached the green in two and two-putted for a final birdie.
“I’m glad that I could hold on in the end,” Matsuyama said. “Overall, I think my round went well. I played my normal game without getting nervous.”