British Open, back at Royal Portrush, puts on quite a show
PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — An emotional opening shot by Darren Clarke. A shocking one by Rory McIlroy.
Tiger Woods had his worst score to start a British Open. Brooks Koepka quickly got into contention again.
Emiliano Grillo made a 1. David Duval made a 14.
The Open returned to Royal Portrush after a 68-year absence and made up for lost time with an unusual amount of theater Thursday. When more than 15 hours of golf before a robust, sellout crowd finally ended, J.B. Holmes was atop the leaderboard at a major for the first time in 11 years.
Even that might have been fitting. The big hitter from a small town in Kentucky had his first taste of links golf at Royal Portrush during a college trip, and he recalled how the caddies kept giving him the wrong lines off the tee because they had never seen anyone hit it that far.
Holmes drove the downwind 374-yard fifth hole to 12 feet for a two-putt birdie, and he ended with a 5-iron into the wind to 15 feet for a final birdie and a 5-under 66.
“You just have to accept the conditions over here and not get too greedy,” Holmes said.
He had a one-shot lead over Shane Lowry of Ireland, who didn’t have the level of expectations or the connection to Royal Portrush like McIlroy, Clarke or native son Graeme McDowell, all of whom grew up in Northern Ireland and never imagined golf’s oldest championship returning to their tiny country.
“I feel like for me I can come here a little more under the radar than the other guys,” Lowry said.
That wasn’t the case for McIlroy.
He was the betting favorite who as a 16-year-old stunned Irish golf with a 61 to set the course record at Royal Portrush in the North of Ireland Amateur. The throaty cheers went silent when his tee shot went left and out of bounds. He went into a bush and had to take a penalty to take it out, and he walked off the first green with a quadruple-bogey 8. McIlroy finished with a triple bogey for a 79.
“I’m going to go back and see my family, see my friends, and hopefully they don’t think any less of me after a performance like that today,” McIlroy said. “And I’ll dust myself off and come back out tomorrow and try to do better.”
Woods didn’t seem quite as optimistic.
That magical Masters victory in April is quickly turning into a memory as Woods struggles to find the balance between playing and making sure his back holds up. He has played only 10 rounds since Augusta National, and this was one to forget. Woods three-putted for bogey on No. 5, bladed a chip on No. 6 for a double bogey and stretched his arms in mock triumph when he finally made a birdie — his only birdie — on No. 15.
He ended with another bogey for a 78, matching his second-worst score in a major.
“Playing at this elite level is a completely different deal,” Woods said. “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.”
The Dunluce Links held up beautifully in such lush conditions, and so did the reputation of Northern Ireland’s ever-changing coastal weather. There was a blue sky and dark clouds, a strong breeze and a stiff wind, shadows and showers, all within an hour’s time.
“I took on and put off my rain gear probably at least nine times in nine holes,” Matt Kuchar said.
Even so, the scoring was good, without anyone being great.
The large group at 68 included Koepka, who has won three of the last six majors and looked very much capable of adding the third leg of the Grand Slam. Koepka was tied for the lead at one point until he made his lone bogey on the 17th hole. He has been runner-up twice and won the PGA Championship this year. He started out the final major in a tie for third after the first round.
As usual, Koepka keeps it simple, and it helps to have Ricky Elliott as his caddie. Elliott grew up at Portrush and knows the course as well as anyone.
“It’s easy when he’s just standing on the tee telling you to hit it in this spot and I just listen to him,” Koepka said. “I don’t have to think much. I don’t have to do anything. I figure out where the miss is and where I’m trying to put it and then go from there.”
Jon Rahm, a two-time Irish Open winner at nearby Portstewart and in the south at Lahinch two weeks ago, joined Holmes and Webb Simpson as the only players to reach 5 under at any point during the day. The Spaniard was particularly sharp from around the greens, controlling chips and putts beautifully. He ran out of luck late, however, missing a 5-foot par putt on the 16th and dropping another shot on the 18th. Even so, 68 was his best score in his fourth British Open.
Duval had hit his worst score in any tournament — 91 — mainly from the jolt of a bad swing on a tough hole, compounded by an oversight. He never found two of his own tee shots at the par-5 seventh, hit the wrong ball in the process and with all the penalty shots had a 14, the second-highest score in 159 years of the British Open.
“Just one of those God-awful nightmare scenarios that happened today,” Duval said. “And I happened to be on the end of it.”
Forty-one players broke par, and 15 of them were within three shots of the lead.
Clarke turned and applauded the grandstand that filled up before his opening tee shot at 6:35 a.m., and he treated everyone else to three birdies through five holes. He wound up with a 71. McDowell wiped a tear from his eye before he teed off, and he was one shot off the early lead until a triple bogey at the last hole sent him to a 73.
McIlroy’s only hope was to treat the crowd to four days, a daunting task when only five players in the 156-man field posted a worse score.
He said he wasn’t the center of attention, and he was right. That belonged to Royal Portrush and the people who filled the links to see championship golf. They were treated to quite the show.
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