Rory McIlroy has started well for the third straight major championship as he opened his 150th Open Championship campaign with a very assured round of 66 to lie just two shots adrift of Cameron Young on six-under-par.
There were also good starts for Pádraig Harrington, Ronan Mullarney and David Carey while Shane Lowry and Seamus Power need to go low on Friday to reignite their hopes. Darren Clarke is seven-over after a 79.
A dry and crusty Old Course greeted the field in firm conditions arguably never seen at the Home of Golf and Young stood tallest at the top for much of the afternoon.
Tiger Woods made his much-anticipated return to St Andrews having geared his entire recovery towards the Old Course but he opened with a 78 with the tone was set after his opening tee shot found a divot and his second shot bounced into the Barry Burn culminating in a double-bogey six. After that nothing went his way although the crowds were hugely supportive and flocked to see their returning hero.
Young shot a blistering eight-under 64 in a round where he found himself seven-under through twelve holes before a birdie on 18 saw him pull two clear of Rory. Players champion Cameron Smith is a shot further back alongside Robert Dinwiddie on –5 while world number one Scottie Scheffler is part of the pack on four-under that also includes Viktor Hovland and Dustin Johnson.
McIlroy was making his first Open Championship appearance at St Andrews since a third place finish in 2010 having missed the 2015 edition following a freak ankle injury the year after winning at Hoylake.
The Holywood native got the title defence he never had off to a flier with a 55-foot birdie putt which set the mood for his day.
The McIlroy charge was then in full swing after three successive birdies from the 5th to the 7th as he moved to four-under at the halfway point of the round.
Birdies at 12, 14 and 18 rounded off a great start with his only blemish coming on the thirteenth.
The four-time major champion appeared to be in complete control on the golf course and that’s how he felt when reflecting on his opening effort.
“Yeah, everything feels very settled. No real issues with my game. Everything feels like it’s in good shape. Everything feels just sort of nice and quiet, which is a nice way to be. And yeah, thinking well.
“17, for example, today I hit it way down there. And my ball’s on the fairway, but it’s in a lie where I don’t feel like I can get the leading edge of a lob wedge underneath the ball to get a good enough strike on it. So I chipped a little gap wedge down there, and I pulled it.
“But I played the right shot so that if I did miss it, it wasn’t in too bad of a spot but I could then get it up-and-down from. And that’s what I’m talking about, the trickiness. I only had 85 yards to the front of the green on 17, and I knew 4 was going to be a good score.
“So I think it’s accepting that sometimes and not being overly aggressive, even when you put yourself in some of these positions. I think that’s important.”
Ernie Els led the way for the golden oldies after a morning effort of two-under but a closing birdie ensured Harrington now leads the charge for the old guard after a three-under 69.
The Dubliner missed a tiddler on 16, made a miraculous par on 17 and two-putted for birdie on 18 in a round that kissed the six-hour mark on what was a excruciatingly slow afternoon at the Old Course.
A hat-trick of Claret Jugs is very much alive for the 50-year-old who is just five back in a share of 13th place.
Harrington cut a jaded figure after his round but was pleased with how he battled.
“I got tired. When I missed the putt on 16, I couldn’t see a way home to the clubhouse (laughter). I was not in a good place.
“It was a long day. I didn’t need to miss that putt. I know my own rounds I struggled. I’ve seen that of late at the last couple of holes. It’s tough to finish off a few rounds. So missing the putt on 16 really did deflate me.
“It was hard going those last couple of holes, all the stopping and starting and trying to — you know, when you’re 50 years of age, it’s hard to Rolls Royce it on every swing.”
If Harrington battled hard then Lowry put in an untold effort to shoot a level-par 72 having been three-over through four holes. The Clara native is still very much behind the 8-ball at eight shots behind but he was in high spirits after his round.
“Yeah, I got off to the worst possible start and fought back well,” explained the 2019 Open champion. “Would have been really, really nice to hole that putt on the last. After a bad tee shot on the 2nd, didn’t really do much wrong after that. Played pretty good for the rest of the day. I’m pretty happy with how I’m playing.
“I know I’m eight behind, but it’s a pretty good store score out there today. It’s very, very tricky.
“I said to Bo walking up the 5th, I said we’ve got a few holes left to get this back right. I feel like I’ve done everything pretty much okay today. Tee shot right on the 2nd is pretty silly. Other than that, I feel like the rest of the day is pretty good.
“I’m not down in the dumps by any means about my day. I’m pretty happy with how I fought. I played lovely golf today. After the 4th hole, I didn’t really do much wrong at all.”
Galway’s Ronan Mullarney enjoyed a dream front nine on his major championship debut as he made the turn in three-under which included a walk in eagle on the par-5 5th. Unfortunately he couldn’t keep it going as three bogeys in five holes saw him fall back to level-par. A dropped shot on the road hole was followed by a closing par for the 2019 Irish Close winner.
The Maynooth graduate was in the final group in round one and finished his maiden major championship round at half ten in the darkness having teed off over six hours earlier.
Ireland’s very own ‘Mr 57’ Carey of Darwin Escapes came through Open qualifying at Fairmont and he opened his account with a level-par 72 on his major championship debut.
Seamus Power has work to do if he is to keep his 100% record of cuts made in major championships after a one-over 73.