McIlroy’s opening round of two halves saw the Irishman go out in 39, five over par, and come home in 32 for a one-over 71 that leaves him six shots off a trio of Americans at the top of a quality leaderboard on five under, Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka, and Matt Kuchar.
Former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel of South Africa and Englishman Paul Casey are a shot back on four under following opening rounds of 66 while there is a six-way tie for sixth place just two strokes off the pace. That group features Ian Poulter, the runner-up here when Pádraig Harrington lifted the Claret Jug at Birkdale in 2008, last Sunday’s Scottish Open winner Rafa Cabrera Bello of Spain, Americans Justin Thomas and Charley Hoffman, another Englishman in Richard Bland, and Canada’s Alex Connelly.
McIlroy leads the Irish challenge after a day of disappointment with Shane Lowry posting a two-over 72, Harrington a 73, and Darren Clarke a 75, but at least the world number four finished on a high at the end of day played out in the teeth of a testing, fluctuating breeze on a links course as challenging as these golfers will face.
The start of McIlroy’s round had been as inauspicious as his form coming into the major he had won three years ago at nearby Royal Liverpool. Three missed cuts in his last four starts and an admission that he was still having to manage the rib injury that had twice sidelined him this season did not bode well. Fears for the four-time major champion’s prospects appeared well-founded after a woeful start to the 146th Open left him five over after six holes.
McIlroy, 28 and without a major victory since the 2014 PGA, was in trouble from the first tee, finding rough with the opening shot of his round and then pushing his second shot well right of the green. He then sent his rescue shot off the other side of the putting surface. The attempted chip failed to reach the green and, just as disaster loomed, he holed out with his putt from 20ft out of the fringe. In the circumstances, it was a good bogey but there were less satisfactory ones to come. McIlroy’s three-putt at the fifth was his third in succession and another followed at the sixth with a missed par putt.
Poor body language and an obvious discomfort in his swing, judging by the number of practice swings he was making, were portents of more doom for McIlroy but with significant help from caddie JP Fitzgerald, he began to turn things around.
“JP gave me a talking to on the sixth tee, not anything bad, he was just trying to keep me as positive as possible. That was big, he was just trying to remind me who I was, that I’d won this tournament before and not to feel any pressure and go out and play my game,” said McIlroy.
“I started playing my game and it was nice to make some birdies coming in.”
It needed some baby steps, though. The ship began to steady at the par-three seventh when he got up and down from a greenside bunker for a welcome par to end his run of four consecutive bogeys and there was a well-saved par at the eighth but it was still his worst front nine at The Open since going out in five over in the third round of the 2009 Championship at Turnberry. He needed a strong back nine and duly delivered a blemish-free run of holes featuring four birdies, at the 11th, 15th, 17th, and 18th, celebrating with a fist pump that was a welcome contrast to his demeanour a couple of hours previously.
He had put down his shaky start to nervousness derived from his poor recent form, a “lack of self-belief”.
“But somehow I was able to find it halfway through the round and, again, that’s what I’m going to concentrate on going into tomorrow.
“I trusted what I was working on on the range. I sort of felt I was caught in between on the first six holes. Yeah, I found a little swing thought or a little trigger that I think is going to help. JP, he reminded me who I was, basically. He said, ‘You’re Rory McIlroy, what are you doing?’.
“I said, ‘Yeah... whatever’. But it helped. It definitely helped. It kept me positive. So he did a great job.
“It’s a bit like Ryder Cup at Medinah in 2012. We’re 10-6 down on Saturday night but we feel like we were right in with a chance, because we won the last two points. It’s sort of like that. Even though there’s a lot of golf left, in other circumstances it might have been a disappointing day. But just with the way I finished, I feel really good.
“I’m really happy with what I’ve done this afternoon after the start. If I go out tomorrow under bad conditions and shoot something in the 60s, I feel like I’ll be right there for the weekend.”
As good as McIlroy feels, Spieth, Koepka, and Kuchar will also be in positive frames of mind following their opening 65s, with Koepka, who made his major breakthrough last month at Erin Hills, eyeing a US Open-Open double achieved only seven times before and by an illustrious group containing Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, and Tiger Woods.
Among the galleries there is optimism Birkdale will celebrate a first British winner in the 10th staging of The Open on this section of the Lancashire coast if Casey or Poulter can see the job through.
Southport’s hopes of a hometown victory rested with Tommy Fleetwood but things did not go according to plan. The European Tour Race To Dubai leader slumped to a six-over 76.