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Rory McIlroy is not out of The Open, argues sympathetic Tommy Fleetwood

Rory McIlroy, pictured, looks equal parts stunned and relieved at ending his awful round of 79 at Royal Portrush. (David Davies/PA)
Rory McIlroy, pictured, looks equal parts stunned and relieved at ending his awful round of 79 at Royal Portrush. (David Davies/PA)
Bogey-free: England’s Tommy Fleetwood comes down the 18th fairway to shoot a three-under par 68

By Phil Casey

Tyrrell Hatton and Tommy Fleetwood are leading the Royal Portrush charge for a first English winner at The Open since Nick Faldo in 1992.

Fleetwood, however, is not ruling out a charge of epic proportions from Rory McIlroy.

The home favourite carded a catastrophic eight over par opening round in what Fleetwood reckons is a more understandable collapse than many consider.

Fleetwood posted a 76 at home course Royal Birkdale when the Southport course hosted The Open in 2017, and has plenty of sympathy for McIlroy's plight.

"I can only speak on a personal level when Birkdale came around and the feelings I got on the tee," said Fleetwood. "I suppose aside from the Ryder Cup I've never quite had anything like that.

"The support is amazing and really you have to experience it to take it away and know what to do. I did a terrible job of it day one, I shot six over. I loved it, but it comes with pressure. It's only yourself that will put that pressure on, because you want to do well for everybody. You're at home and it's a special occasion.

"Not everybody even gets to play a home event, let alone it be a home event and also the biggest event in the world.

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"Certain pressures come with that, but it's all in a positive light and it's so good to see so many people out there.

"Golf's hard! It's Rory McIlroy, and to this day he's one of, if not, the greatest players I've ever seen.

"So I wouldn't be at all surprised to see him go out tomorrow and shoot a great score. He's not actually out of the tournament.

"It's easy to focus on the bad day that he's had, but it's Rory McIlroy and you don't know what he could do next.

"It is difficult but of course when it's not going your way, and you're trying your hardest in front of your home crowd, it just adds up a little bit. But I'm sure that he'll come back just fine."

Hatton and Fleetwood both posted a three under 68 to peg a crucial foothold after a hectic first day in Northern Ireland.

While Hatton was happy to nudge closer towards a feel-good factor after a post-Ryder Cup slump, Fleetwood revealed the secret to his bogey-free round was easing the self-imposed stress.

"It's been a bit of a come-down after the Ryder Cup and it's fair to say that I have struggled this year," said Hatton, who starred in Europe's victory over the USA in Paris last September.

"But my game feels in a good place, and hopefully I can keep playing well and that will lift my spirits.

"I've driven pretty well all day, although I wasn't hitting it too close, I wasn't making many mistakes.

"That allowed me a solid score and I picked up a couple of shots as well, which is nice.

"I had a nice finish last week at the Scottish Open, but all you can do is try your best. Today it worked out for me.

"It's pretty special, this is my eighth Open so I've got a bit of experience there. The crowds here are great.

"There's just a great buzz around here, we've gone out for dinner the last few nights and obviously it's packed. And it's just a good atmosphere to be in, and we're all enjoying the week.

"I'd like to say I go unnoticed when I'm out and about, as no one knows me anyway, so it's fine. So I just go about my life and do what I do."

Fleetwood eased around Northern Ireland's testing north coast course, completing a serene and error-free round where others battled through wind, rain and personal frustrations.

The 28-year-old admitted he shook off the personal pressure to avoid dropping any shots, in a very tidy first-round performance.

"Any time you're going to go bogey free at a major, take it and run," said Fleetwood.

"I played really consistently, so I'm just happy with that."

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