Rory McIlroy hits longest ever drive as he powers to front in Scottish Open
An outrageous 430-yard drive – the longest of his life – and a course-record 64 hurtled Rory McIlroy to the top of the Aberdeen Asset Scottish Open leaderboard yesterday and convinced him that he can replicate Phil Mickelson's famous links double last year.
So much for the Ulsterman not being a wind player.
On a gusty day, McIlroy blew this supposedly brutal Balgownie course away with eight birdies and one bogey to take a one-shot advantage over the Swede Kristoffer Broberg and the Argentinian Ricardo Gonzalez, with another Northern Irishman in Michael Hoey in fourth on five-under.
As a warm-up to next week's Open, McIlroy's effort was red-hot. Certainly the red Nike driver was on fire.
"I don't ever recall hitting a drive as far as that one," McIlroy said, reflecting on the incredible boomer on the 13th. "I mean, I know I've hit drives over 400, but that's sort of up there."
Up there was the right description. It came to rest within 40 feet of the pin and despite only trickling on to the green, it stunned the group ahead. Ian Poulter was one of the trio and flexed his muscles to mock his Ryder Cup team-mate.
It was not quite the longest drive on the European Tour, as Shiv Kapur hit one 442 yards at the 2012 Madeira Open, while on the PGA Tour, Davis Love reached an incredible 476 yards at the 2004 Mercedes Open.
"They all said 'Well done' and I told Poulter it was a three-wood," McIlroy said.
"It was wind assisted and downhill and firm conditions, but still, it was a good drive. I was confident because I knocked it on in yesterday's pro-am. So I was sure what line to take and just stepped up and hit a good one."
Of course, everyone already knew McIlroy could belie his 5ft 9in frame to give it a tremendous wallop; what had been in doubt was McIlroy's ball control in these conditions. The intense recent links practice with his coach, Michael Bannon, has clearly paid off.
"This is as low as I've gone when the wind has been this high," McIlroy said. "I'm more confident than ever in my ability to hit the shots I need in wind like this, and control my ball-flight. I'm as prepared as I have ever been to play this sort of golf."
Indeed, McIlroy is so full of self-belief he sees no reason why he should not match Mickelson in going back-to-back at the Scottish Open and the Open.
"Of course, it's possible," he said. "Phil did it last year and I'd love to be able to emulate him. There's a lot of golf to play, but this is definitely something to build on.
"You know, this style of golf would not fit my natural game, which is a high ball-flight. But I'm going to make this my favourite style for two weeks a year.
"I've been working the last 10 days on keeping the ball down, hitting easy shots and taking spin off it and I went out there today and really trusted what I practised."
McIlroy has revealed that he took inspiration from Mickelson finally mastering the links – after so many years of struggles – and the left-hander again displayed his penchant for seaside golf with a 68, which included an eagle three on the sixth.
Mickelson hit his own 400-plus drive on the 12th and was in good spirits, regardless of his three-putt on the 18th for a bogey.
"I played well and had a good putting day until the 18th," Mickelson said. "This is a tough test and conditions were tough so I am surprised the scores so low."
Mickelson is never dull and his birdie off the 13th had the big crowd in awe. He played a 98-yard wedge shot off a cart path and put it within 10 feet.
Luke Donald is one better on four-under, while 2011 Open champion Darren Clarke shot an encouraging 69 to make his odds of 500/1 for Hoylake seem absurd.
Leading the Scottish challenge is Marc Warren on four-under.
There was no question which side of the draw enjoyed the advantage. None of the afternoon starters was able to rise into the top 10 as the greens dried out.
And if the pin positions are not as generous today and if the breezes stiffen, then McIlroy and the rest of the second-round late men may be up against it.
McIlroy has endured his Friday troubles this year, most notably when at the Memorial when following up a 63 with a 78.
The likes of Justin Rose will know this and go in pursuit this morning. The Englishman's two-under 69 was a courageous effort in the worst of the conditions; his fist pump when holing a 12-footer for birdie on the 18th highlighted his satisfaction.
Playing alongside was his countryman Lee Westwood, who was five over after five. But the 41-year-old played the remaining 13 holes in four-under for a 72.
That was one better than Nick Faldo, whose 73 was commendable, considering this was only his fifth competitive round of the year. The six-time Major winner will be keen to make the cut as he tries to build momentum for Hoylake.
Mark O'Meara, the 1998 Open champion, has withdrawn from next week's tournament and is replaced by England's Ross Fisher.