The old saying goes, ‘you can’t win a golf tournament on a Thursday, but you can lose it’. In that regard, Rory McIlroy is still alive at The Open Championship.
A level-par 70 in his opening round tells about half the tale. The phrase ‘rollercoaster of a round’ is bandied about a lot in golf, but perhaps no more appropriately did it apply than to the Holywood man at Royal St George’s yesterday.
There was the early ascent of the birdie at the first. The steep decline of three straight bogeys at the fifth, sixth and seventh. A loop-de-loop that consisted of a birdie at eight and a three-putt bogey at 11. Another short ascent with a birdie at 14, with a whole kaleidoscope of twists and turns on his way back to the clubhouse before a gentle ascent back up to the loading bay — or, in McIlroy’s literal case, the recorder’s office — with a closing birdie.
He’s not won it. He’s not close to being in pole position to win it either. At six shots back of Louis Oosthuizen — who is putting up a strong challenge to Brooks Koepka’s mantle of Mr Major — he has ground to make up, and the stats are against him.
Of the last ten Open winners, only two were outside the top-10 after day one. None were outside the top-20. McIlroy is tied-48th.
But when that birdie putt fell on the 18th hole for an even 70, you couldn’t help think he’s not out of it yet.
“Pride, more than anything else,” was the World No.11’s overriding emotion after the round.
“To get back to even-par for the day, it probably doesn’t make much of a difference, but even mentally I guess it feels a bit better to birdie the last.
“I’m looking forward to getting back out there tomorrow.”
In a digital age, and particularly in a pandemic age where those dreaded Zoom interviews are still taking place at Royal St George’s this week, there are more television angles and roving reporters than ever before, particularly at a Major.
But no television angle can accurately represent just how tough the conditions became during McIlroy’s round. While the early starters at Sandwich, including Darren Clarke, had a stiff enough breeze to contend with, it was nothing compared to those who took to the course in the afternoon.
It’s why the best score from anyone teeing off after 2.30pm was just three-under, compared to the eight players who teed off before that and shot 66 or lower.
It’s why McIlroy’s level-par is not as bad as it looks. For long stretches of his round, particularly midway through both of his nines, he was playing into the teeth of a brutal headwind that was gusting close to 20mph. Down by the edge of the sea, the wind chill cut through you and par quickly became an excellent score.
If, as the weather forecast predicts, the conditions are exactly the same today — with the morning starters benefitting from more favourable wind conditions — then there could be a greater deal of parity come the end of play this evening.
And that is why it was vital McIlroy didn’t play himself out. Level-par can be battled back from. The further into the 70s he went, the more it would have become a challenge to make the weekend rather than haul himself back into contention.
Clarke hailed McIlroy’s mental approach and the work he’s done with Dr Bob Rotella in his pre-tournament press conference and you could see it paying off in this first round. After those three straight bogeys, his day — and, indeed, his tournament — could have collapsed. Instead, he battled back and played his final 11 holes in two-under-par to make it a respectable outing.
Even his unheralded moments were big. Arguably, his par saves at the third, 13th and 17th were just as important as the birdies.
It will still take a round in the mid-60s today to have McIlroy right in the thick of things going into the weekend. There are, after all, a host of talented players in between him and Oosthuizen at the summit, and easier conditions does not automatically equal a better score. But it’s not all doom and gloom.
Certainly compared to how he started at Royal Portrush two years ago, the four-time Major champion in a much better position after 18 holes than he was then. At least this time he kept a quadruple-bogey off his card.
“No out of bounds on this first hole, so that’s nice!” he grinned.
McIlroy hasn’t won it. He may still not win it. But he certainly hasn’t played himself out of it, and that’s a good place to start.
By the same token, neither has Clarke, although the 2011 champion golfer has a steeper challenge to contend with, namely he will be part of that afternoon wave today that is expected to bear the brunt of the conditions.
A one-over 71 was a steady if unspectacular start, but his general play wasn’t far from the mark. He’s not going to overpower the course like some others will, but his ball striking was crisp, his play around the greens was sharp and he kept the ball in play which, at Royal St George’s in particular, is essential.
“I actually hit the ball pretty nicely but I missed a couple of fairways by two inches and all of a sudden when you’re in that (rough) you’re trying to run the ball up or you’re aiming away from flags to not make any stupid mistakes,” said Clarke.
“My stats may have been somewhat misleading today, which frequently will happen on links golf. But overall I was quite pleased with the way I actually hit the ball and the way I played.”
Like McIlroy, being outside the top-10 isn’t ideal given how this tournament has panned out in the past — Clarke himself was sixth after the first round when he won here in 2011. But if anybody can tame Royal St George’s, it’s the Dungannon man.
And, much like the winds whipping in off the Strait of Dover yesterday afternoon, wouldn’t that just blow you away.