By Simon Evans
PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland (Reuters) – Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods endured miserable first rounds at the British Open on Thursday with American J.B. Holmes ending in the lead after shooting a five under-par 66 at Royal Portrush.
McIlory disappointed the home support with the home favourite carding an eight-over-par 79 while a stiff-looking Woods was nothing like the player who won the Masters in April as he laboured to seven-over.
All eyes were on McIlroy as the Open returned to Northern Ireland for the first time in 68 years, but the buzz around his appearance on course quickly disappeared with a sickening quadruple bogey at the first hole.
The four-times major champion ended his day knowing he will need a stellar second round merely to make the halfway cut.
Ireland’s Shane Lowry was the clubhouse leader for a couple of hours after a four-under-par 67 on a day of wind and squally showers, mixed with dazzling sunshine.
“I took my chances when I got them early on,” said Lowry.
“At the start of my back nine, I missed a few chances. But look, I think four-under is a great score on that course and I’ll take it any day.”
His score was later overtaken by Holmes, who handled the course with confidence despite a bogey on the first.
“I hit it great. I didn’t miss too many shots. When I did I missed them in the right spot. I putted well. Stuck to our game plan and just executed about as perfectly as I could do it,” he said.
A large group on two back included world number one Brooks Koepka, who made an ominously good start with a tidy performance that was bogey-free until a wayward drive at the 17th.
Koepka, seeking to complete one of the greatest major championship years after going second, first and second at the Masters, PGA Championship and U.S. Open, was guided around Portrush by caddie Ricky Elliott, who hails from the area.
“He just tells me where to hit it and I go from there,” Koepka said of Elliott.
“The game plan’s pretty concrete. It’s actually quite easy. I really don’t have to do much thinking. I just go out there and play.”
Spaniard Jon Rahm, viewed by many experts as a title contender, was in the group two shots back of Holmes after missing a five foot par putt on the 18th.
Other leading names did not enjoy their opening rounds at the last major of the year.
Defending champion Francesco Molinari of Italy struggled to a three-over 74, former winner Phil Mickelson shot 76.
McIlroy once scored 61 around Portrush as a teenager but began his challenge for the Claret Jug he won in 2014 in calamitous fashion.
McIlroy’s opening tee shot went out of bounds, breaking a spectator’s phone in the process. His follow-up found heavy rough and from there he struck his next shot into an unplayable lie in a bramble bush.
After taking a penalty drop, McIlroy chipped on to the green and two-putted. He picked his ball out of the hole, to sympathetic applause, with an ugly eight on his card.
The 30-year-old bogeyed the par-three third and although he repaired some of the damage with birdies at seven and nine, the gremlins returned. He double-bogeyed the par-three 16th and triple-bogeyed the last before trudging off.
“I would like to punch myself. I made a couple of stupid mistakes. I was pretty nervous on the first tee and hit a bad shot,” he said of his out-of-bounds effort.
“I showed some resilience in the middle of the round and was trying to fight back into the championship but then I finished off poorly as well,” he said.
Woods made just one birdie, at the par-four 15th and said he had been in pain, struggling with his movement.
“You’ve got to be spot on. These guys are too good, there are too many guys that are playing well and I’m just not one of them,” he said.
The 148th Open began with Portrush resident Darren Clarke striking the first tee shot on an historic morning on the Antrim coast. Clarke made three birdies in his first five holes before carding level-par 71.
One of the biggest roars greeted Emiliano Grillo’s hole-in-one on the par-three 13th. The 26-year-old Argentine’s ace was the first at the Open since Louis Oosthuizen in 2016.
Despite damp weather for a second successive day, fans arrived early and in number for the sold-out tournament, with the expected total attendance of 237,750 making it the best attended British Open outside of St Andrews in Scotland.
(Writing by Martyn Herman and Andrew Both; editing by Ed Osmond and Pritha Sarkar)