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Koepka cashes in on local knowledge

Feeling at home: Brooks Koepka with his local caddy Ricky Elliott
Feeling at home: Brooks Koepka with his local caddy Ricky Elliott
It was a bad and painful day for Tiger Woods
JB Holmes

By Phil Casey

World number one Brooks Koepka cruised into contention for a fifth major title in his last 10 starts as Rory McIlroy's hopes of ending his five-year drought were effectively ended by two nightmare holes at the 148th Open.

Having Portush native Ricky Elliott as his caddy certainly paid dividends for the man from the US, but local knowledge didn't help everyone.

At the venue where he announced himself as a star of the future with a course record of 61 aged 16, McIlroy began with an eight and finished with a seven in a demoralising opening 79 at Royal Portrush.

At eight over par McIlroy was 13 shots off the pace set by American JB Holmes, whose 66 gave him a one-shot lead over Ireland's Shane Lowry, with Koepka part of a 13-strong group which included Scotland's Robert MacIntyre and the English trio of Tyrrell Hatton, Tommy Fleetwood and Lee Westwood.

"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," said Holmes.

"You just have to accept the conditions over here and not get too greedy and go after some pins."

McIlroy was not the only big name to struggle in the wind and rain, Masters champion Tiger Woods acknowledging his only birdie of the day on the 15th by licking his index finger and drawing a number one in the air in weary celebration.

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Woods, given a vociferous backing from the crowded Portush galleries, eventually signed for a 78 to card his highest opening round in 21 Open appearances, three shots more than his previous worst of 75 in 1996 when he was still an amateur.

Woods, who has had a number of operations on his back, said he knew he was in for a testing day as soon as he walked onto the range as he felt physically restricted.

"I'm sore. My warm-up wasn't very good. I had a hard time moving and was just trying to piece together a swing that will get me around a golf course," he said. "Then all of a sudden I made probably one of the best pars you've ever seen on one today. That was a pretty good start. But it was kind of downhill from there."

The former world number one said he was heading off for treatment immediately after his round.

"That's about all I can do, and hopefully the body responds. That's just the nature of the procedure that I had," he added.

"I'm going to have days like this and got to fight through it. And I fought through it. Unfortunately, I did not post a very good score."

Former Irish Open winner Jon Rahm also finished poorly with a dropped shot at the last seeing him fall into the increasingly large pack at three under.

Koepka finished second in the Masters in April, successfully defended his US PGA title the following month and was runner-up to Gary Woodland in the US Open at Pebble Beach in June.

No player in the modern era has placed in the top two in all four majors in a calendar year, but the 29-year-old made the most of the local knowledge of his caddie Ricky Elliott, who hails from Portrush, as he carded four birdies and one bogey in his 68.

"Obviously he knows this golf course like the back of his hand," Koepka said.

"It's fun. 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. I don't have to think much.

"I've hit it unbelievable the last couple of days. I'm very pleased with the way I'm striking it. I feel good. I feel very comfortable. It's a major championship. That's what you're trying to peak for."

Lowry's 67 was his best opening round in any major and came after a pub pep talk with his coach Neil Manchip on Wednesday.

"We went for a coffee down at the Bushmills Inn and we found a little quiet room, we had a great chat for about 40 minutes," Lowry said.

"We just put everything out in the open, everything out on the table, what could happen, what might happen.

"I left that room full of confidence and ready to go and it's my best (opening major round) by about eight shots.

"That was nice. It was nice to shoot a good score and hopefully I can go out and keep at it the next few days."

New Zealand's Ryan Fox was part of the large group on three under after firing six birdies in the last seven holes to card the first back nine of 29 in Open history.

"It's the first round in a while where I had some fun," he said.

Justin Rose kept himself in the hunt for glory with a steady two under to secure a four-way tie for 17th place.

"Today was a good day of links golf," said Rose. "For me the wind today was a perfect amount on a links course.

"It separates the guys who were playing well from the guys who aren't and doesn't make it just about a putting competition.

"This a good thing for me to build on. I think today was an important round and I can kick on from here."

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