HOYLAKE, England — On a day when Tiger Woods made an impressive return to the majors, Rory McIlroy got off to another blistering start at the British Open.
Now, can McIlroy keep it going?
The two-time major champion took advantage of prime scoring conditions to shoot a 6-under 66 on July 17, putting him in what has become a familiar position: the first-round lead.
McIlroy has played the opening round in a cumulative 55-under par this year, including three 63s and a course-record 64 at last week’s Scottish Open. But he’s failed to win any of those events, largely because of what he calls his “second-round thing.”
His total score on Fridays — 15 over.
Woods is just happy to be playing after back surgery kept him out of the first two majors of 2014. He got off to a shaky start with bogeys at the first two holes. Down the stretch, he looked more like the player who romped to victory the last time golf’s oldest major was held at this course along the Irish Sea.
Playing the back nine in 4-under 33, Woods finished with a 69 that put him right in the midst of a bunch of red numbers. He rolled in a 30-foot putt from the fringe at No. 11, sparking a run of five birdies in six holes.
For the early starters, it couldn’t have been better day for scoring — mild and sunny, with only a slight breeze rippling the flags. It was a far cry from 2006, when Woods won on dry, fiery course that made the grass more brown than green. This time, Royal Liverpool was lush and relatively soft after intermittent rain on Wednesday.
Matteo Manassero made only one bogey and also shot 33 after the turn, taking advantage of a quirk in the course which puts three par-5s in the closing nine. He birdied them all for a 67.
He wasn’t the only Italian off to an encouraging start. Brothers Edoardo and Francesco Molinari opened with matching 68s.
“I saw the leaderboard,” said Francesco, the younger of the siblings. “But it’s a tough course, so you have to focus on what you are doing rather than the others are doing — even if it’s your brother.”
Also at 68 were Spain’s Sergio Garcia and a pair of Americans, Jim Furyk and Brooks Koepka. Sweden’s Robert Karlsson, Marc Leishman of Australia and Japan’s Koumei Oda were tied with Woods and Ricky Fowler another shot back.
“I didn’t play fantastic, but the course is out there to make some birdies on,” said Karlsson, who teed off in the first group of the day at 6:25 a.m.
He described the breeze as “tricky,” but acknowledged it wasn’t much of a defense against those going out in the morning. “I’ll take this tricky,” Karlsson said.
After his opening shot settled safely in the fairway, Woods ran into trouble when his next swing sent the ball into one of the treacherous pot bunkers.
His wedge out of the sand scooted through the green and led to bogey. At No. 2, the three-time Open champion knocked a long putt about 6 feet past the hole, then missed the comebacker to take his score to 2 over.
Woods took advantage of the only par-5 on the front side for his first birdie. Then, the 14-time major winner rolled in a long putt from the fringe of the green at No. 11 for another, which sparked a run of three straight birdies.
After another bogey at the 14th, set up by an errant tee shot into the hay, Woods bounced back with two more birdies.
Woods has gone six years without a major title and this season was interrupted by back surgery on March 31. He missed the Masters for the first time, and then the U.S. Open, before returning three weeks ago at Congressional. He missed the cut by four shots, though he was happy that he felt no pain.
Woods’ threesome included Sweden’s Henrik Stenson, who is among four players with a shot at replacing Adam Scott at No. 1 in the world if he wins. The others are Justin Rose, Bubba Watson and Jason Day.
Woods was No. 1 when he took three months off to heal his back. Now he’s seventh.
The last three Open champions have all been in their early 40s. Koepka, a 24-year-old American who began his pro career in Europe, wants to end that streak. “I hope someone in their 20s wins,” he said. “I hope it’s me.”
(PAUL NEWBERRY, AP National Writer)