Keeping Score

From 1st swing, McIlroy falters at home

Rory McIlroy saw his dream of playing a British Open in his native land quickly turn into a nightmare Thursday

PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland – Rory McIlroy saw his dream of playing a British Open in his native land quickly turn into a nightmare Thursday.

After being showered with a hero’s welcome at the first tee of Royal Portrush’s Dunluce Links, McIlroy hooked his tee shot out of bounds. He took his penalty, re-teed and made a disastrous quadruple-bogey 8.

"Has a sporting event ever had the wind knocked out of it quicker than this one today?" Golf Channel's Brandel Chamblee said.

If this were a boxing match, McIlroy was knocked to the canvas by the opening punch. The pre-tournament favorite staggered to his feet and played the next 14 holes in 1 under before all that good work was undone with an uncharacteristically sloppy finish.

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Standing 5 over after 3 holes at Royal Portrush in his native Northern Ireland, Rory McIlroy follows an errant drive right on the 4th hole, where he recovered to make par.

© GOLFFILE/THOS CAFFREY
Standing 5 over after 3 holes at Royal Portrush in his native Northern Ireland, Rory McIlroy follows an errant drive right on the 4th hole, where he recovered to make par.

Was it nerves? Pressure? McIlroy downplayed the great expectations of having a nation pulling for him to win in his native land.

“I don’t think so,” McIlroy said. “Look, I was nervous on the first tee, but not nervous because of that. Nervous because it’s an Open Championship.”

Calamity Corner is the name given to the devilish 16th hole at Portrush, but for McIlroy it was the first hole, a 421-yard straightaway par 4 that is a gentle handshake of a start to the round. McIlroy swatted his 2-iron left into an area marked internal out of bounds. When asked in an interview to describe the first hole, Henrik Stenson joked that all he saw was white stakes left and right; Kevin Kisner wondered why they bothered to trick up the hole.

“Why did they have to do that to us with those little stakes all the way down there?” he said.

R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers explained Wednesday that there used to be a triangle of land between the first and 18th holes that the club didn’t own and therefore was marked as out of bounds. Though the club now owns the property, Slumbers said, “We try to stay true to how the course is played.”

McIlroy accepted his fate, saying, “Yeah, that’s the way it’s always been.”

He re-teed, and his next shot nestled into the left rough as he continued to make a mess from there with another penalty shot. Walking off the first green, McIlroy muttered to himself, “Well, that’s the worst that can happen.”

McIlroy had 17 holes to try to recover, and he did an admirable job, improving to 3 over through 15 holes. But then he missed a 1-footer for a debilitating double bogey at the par-3 16th that negated all the good work he had done.

“That was inexcusable,” he said. “Lapses of concentration like that, I feel like I’ve done a really good job over the last few years of being more with it and realizing, OK, just keep a cool head. And there, I didn’t. I hit it on the run and missed it.

“If I look back at today, it’s probably the shot I’m disappointed about the most.”

You don’t win four major championships and reach No. 1 in the world if you’re a head case, but McIlroy has shown that when he wants to win too badly, he is prone to crooked drives. First-tee jitters happen to the best of us. Remember how he blocked his opening tee shot of the final round of the 2017 Masters into the pine trees right of right? He was lucky that ball was still on the map. McIlroy has spent a lot of time reading self-help books and meditating and talking a good game about how he doesn’t care about results, but the reality is that he is about to have gone five full seasons without a major title and was a non-factor in all four this season. On this occasion, it sure feels like the moment was too big for McIlroy, and if it was, that’s human nature. The great Bobby Jones once said, “Competitive golf is played mainly on a 5½-inch course: the space between your ears.”

McIlroy wasn’t the only big name to struggle on Thursday (scores). Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods are also in danger of missing the 36-hole cut after today’s round (tee times).

Mickelson, who went on a fasting diet ahead of the Open, appeared to have given up making birdies, too. He carded only two, spraying tee shots left and right en route to an uninspiring 5-over 76.

But two birdies still topped the tally of Woods, who made only one in signing for a 7-under 78. Woods has scaled back his play this season since winning the Masters in April, and it has led to spotty performances in the other majors. He also complained that his body wouldn’t allow him to get to his left side.

“Wasn't hitting it solid,” said Woods, a three-time Claret Jug winner, after his highest first-round score in a British Open. “Everything was off the heel. Just trying to scrape it around. Best I could do was 7 over.”

American J.B. Holmes posted a 5-under 66 to lead Ireland’s Shane Lowry by one stroke after the opening round.

“Stuck to our game plan and just executed about as perfectly as I could do it,” said Holmes, who won the Genesis Open in February, but hasn’t had a top-10 finish since and entered the week having missed five cuts in his past six starts.

“It’s probably actually been one of my worst years I’ve played,” said Holmes, 37, a five-time winner on the PGA Tour who is searching for his first major title.

But he could do no wrong on Thursday, just as McIlroy seemingly could do nothing right. Asked if there was a way back from opening with 79, McIlroy seemed confused, so his questioner clarified that he was referring to his chances of surviving the cut, not winning the Claret Jug.

In a moment of gallows humor, McIlroy cracked, “Definitely a way back to Florida.”

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak


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