IT seems inconceivable that a man could walk off the Old Course at St Andrews after shooting a nine under par 63 in the first round of the 150th Open Championship and feel just a little disappointed.
Unbelievably, though, that was the case yesterday for 21 year-old Rory McIlroy who justified all the pre-tournament confidence placed in him and yet was left to rue a missed four-foot birdie putt on the 17th. Had it dropped in, instead of lipping out, he might well have set a new major championship mark of 62.
He would have needed the birdie that he duly picked up at the 18th where he knocked in a tricky downhill putt of similar distance to create a significant piece of history and was big enough subsequently to admit it made up for what had happened on the 17th green.
“It sort of went through my mind on 17 that 62 would have been the lowest score ever in a major and that’s probably why I missed the putt,” he said. “Yeah, it was a fantastic score because I certainly didn’t get off to flying start and was just one under through eight holes.”
And that’s when the fireworks started. He drove to within 15 feet of the flag at the 352-yards 9th and sank the eagle putt to get out in 33. A hat-trick of birdies followed, his massive power off the tee once again demonstrated when he drove the green at the 348 yards 12th. His putter by this stage had turned red-hot as further gains came at the 14th from ten feet and the 15th from a yard or two further.
In all, he had 28 putts and eight one putt greens, hit 17 of the greens in regulation, landed on 13 of the 16 fairways and stayed out of the notorious St Andrews bunkers.
“No, I don’t think I can come off feeling let down, even if I did let the one on 17 away,” he said. “I just love this course and St Andrews in general and I’m coming in here with a lot of great memories.
“It fits my eye really well. As long as you put your ball in the fairway here, the second shots seem to set up well for me. Even if the pin is in the middle of the green or over a slope, you’ve got to be so inventive and imaginative. You can play so many different shots. It’s a fun course and if I had one course to play, this would probably be it.”
It’s little wonder he should say so given this was the ninth successive round over St Andrews in which he has finished under 70. He can even remember each score and the sequence goes as follows: 69, 69, 67, 68, 67, 68, 65, 69 and now 63. Ironically, the shot that pleased him most was the six iron he played into the 17th green for the birdie that never was!
“I had a similar shot in the Dunhill Links in 2007,” he recalled. “I hit a six iron there to three feet and made that putt and also birdied the 18th to get my European Tour card. This shot today set up nicely for me, it was on a little up-slope and I could get height on it and get it to stop pretty quickly.”
It was, in truth, a perfect golf shot and proved the extent to which McIlroy was trusting his swing. Many others were fearful of taking on the green, never mind the pin, but attack was the only thought in his mind.
His facility to go really low has been apparent ever since he shot 61 exactly five years ago in a qualifying round for the North of Ireland Championship at Royal Portrush.
As recently as last May, he finished the Quail Hollow Championship in North Carolina with a 62 to capture his first title on the PGA US Tour by four strokes.
All of this suggests McIlroy is capable of becoming the youngest winner of the claret jug since 1868, but he preaches caution, aware there is still a very long way to go. He pointed out “it’s only the first day and there are 54 holes left to play.
“I can’t be thinking about winning, I’ve got to be thinking about my 1.30 tee time tomorrow and going out and playing as well as I did today. If I could go out and have the same mind-set, then that’s all I could ask of myself.”
He is also mindful of the fact he also broke 70 in the first rounds of his two previous Opens (68 as an amateur at Carnoustie in 2007 and 69 at Turnberry last year) and eventually finished no better than 42nd and 47th.
For now, though, it would be churlish to take anything from this remarkable opening round and a score that drew plaudits from the remainder of this august field.
When asked if he though McIlroy could win the tournament, his playing partner and 2009 US Open champion Lucas Glover replied “anyone who can shoot 63 at St Andrews can do anything” while Darren Clarke declared “when he shot that 61 at Portrush, we were again here in St Andrews and I told you that anything he achieved didn’t surprise me. Today’s score doesn’t surprise me either. He’s simply that talented.”
Seeing McIlroy’s name at the top of the leader board made this yet another marvellous day for Irish golf coming as it did on the heels of Graeme McDowell’s victory in the US Open last month. The pair are good friends but, as always in these situations, there is a little bit of banter and good natured rivalry between them. Before St Andrews, Rory told G-Mac: “I wouldn’t like to be the only Irishman at the Ryder Cup without a major.”
Hopefully, it’s not tempting fate to suggest that he will have rectified that situation come Sunday evening!
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