On a day of contrasting approaches as to the best way to attack this toughest of Open Championship courses, Rory McIlroy believes his aggressive game plan is one worth sticking to heading into today’s second round at Carnoustie.
American Kevin Kisner, the world number 33, took the 18-hole lead with an opening five-under-par 66, one ahead of compatriot Tony Finau and South Africans Erik van Rooyen and Zander Lombard. Kisner opted for a more strategic method of attack than the bombers at this third major of the year, leaving McIlroy with a three-shot deficit to make up when he resumes play this morning.
Yet the Irishman is convinced his more adventurous approach suits his bid to return to the more carefree and productive ways that brought him four majors between 2011 and 2014.
“Even if you play aggressive around here, you might make more bogeys than playing it safe, but you’re going to make more birdies as well. You’re going to give yourself more birdie looks,” said the world number eight and 2014 Open champion.
“Really after the fifth hole, I didn’t look like making bogey until 16 when I missed the green. I got away with some tee shots, but at the same time, I think that’s what I have to do.
"That’s my gameplan this week. I’m convinced that that’s the way that I should play it. It’s not going to be for everyone, but it worked out pretty well today.”
McIlroy pronounced himself satisfied with his putting despite needing a total of 31, compared to Kisner’s tournament-leading 22. His close-range putting let him down, missing three inside six feet and recording only five one-putts from 18 greens. Yet he sank a 14-footer and another of at least 25 feet, to save par on the par-three 16th when he, like many of his rivals missed the green on Carnoustie’s toughest hole of the day.
He will return for his 7:52am tee time in confident mood.
“Yeah, hopefully hit a few more fairways, but I’ll adopt the same strategy, yes.
“It looks like there could be a bit of rain in the morning. We’ll see what comes of it. It won’t soften the golf course up any. You just got to plan on playing in wet gear and have an umbrella and all that sort of stuff.
“Hopefully, get off to a good fast start and try to make a few birdies and get close to the leaders.”
Kisner showed that a strategic approach to this sun-baked, bouncy, and fast-running course was his correct course of action, preferring positioning off the tee with long irons instead of the bomber’s approach, content that in short rough they could find the greens.
Early-starting Kisner used his driver just four times, instead showcasing some exemplary course management in a round that included an eagle, four birdies, and one bogey.
“If I can keep the ball in the fairway, I feel I can control my golf ball around the green,” said Kisner, though not all of the later starters followed suit.
Kisner is sharing accommodation with defending champion Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jason Dufner, Zach Johnson, Jimmy Walker — with eight major titles between them — and Rickie Fowler, with only Fowler and Kisner still seeking their first major success.
“It’s not intimidating at all,” said Kisner, who shared Spieth’s plane home after his victory at Royal Birkdale last year. “They’re all great people. That’s the best part about it.”
US Open champion Brooks Koepka was one of many to surprise groups ahead of them by driving onto par-four greens as they putted out, in Koepka’s case rolling his ball up alongside an unsuspecting Pádraig Harrington as the 2007 Open winner at Carnoustie parred the opening hole.
Koepka would birdie the same hole minutes later but his bid for consecutive major wins came unstuck during an otherwise nightmarish front nine which saw bogeys at the seventh and ninth as well as doubles at the fifth and eighth, where the American needed three attempts to escape a greenside bunker. Big-hitting Koepka did turn things around on his inward nine, with only one bogey and five birdies to post a one-over 72.
There were mixed fortunes for the other reigning major champions in the field with Masters green jacket holder Patrick Reed posting a four-over 75 while PGA champion and world number two Justin Thomas joined McIlroy at two under with a 69, having reached four under after 11 only to give two shots back on the way home.
Former number one and 14-time major winner Tiger Woods, making his first Open appearance since 2015, continued his solid return to form after four back surgeries as he carded an even-par 71 after bogeying the par-three 13th and par-four 15th. Yet he finished the day tied for fifth in driving accuracy having hit 11 of 15 fairways.
Like Thomas, defending champion Jordan Spieth had got his bid to become the first winner of back-to-back Opens since Harrington in 2008 off to a flying start, bogey free and three under par after 11 holes.
Yet the wire-to-wire leader at Birkdale 12 months ago will have to come from behind if he is to retain the Claret Jug, his first round unravelling over the final four holes. A double bogey on 15, bogey at the par-three 16th, and another bogey at the last consigned the American to a one-over-par 72 alongside playing partner and fellow bookmakers’ fancy Justin Rose.
Spieth, 24, admitted he had taken the wrong club, a 4-iron, off the 15th tee and then compounded his error with another poor decision on his second shot, his ball coming to rest in a pot bunker.
“The problem was on the second shot I should have hit enough club to reach the front of the green, and even if it goes 20 yards over the green, it’s an easy up and down,” said Spieth.
“And that’s what I would consider a significant advantage for me is recognising where the misses are, and I just had a brain fart, and I missed it into the location where the only pot bunker where I could actually get in trouble, and it plugged deep into it.
“It was a really, really poor decision on the second shot, and that cost me.”