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After all the hurt, overwhelming joy for Rory McIlroy after harnessing the magic of St Andrews to deliver a breathtaking early statement at the 150th Open Championship. So often tormented in the majors throughout an eight-year drought, this was a McIlroy that gleefully bounced around the Old Course, ruthlessly capitalising on benign conditions to sizzle throughout his six-under par opener.
The Old Course may well be the most “fiddly” Open venue the Northern Irishman has ever played, but alongside his raw power, the 33-year-old displayed copious amounts of control and composure, continuing a newfound trend to fly out of the traps in the majors.
For so long, McIlroy has stumbled on Thursday, creating a mountain for himself to overcome. But the monstrous birdie putt that meandered across the gaping first green sent him on his way. A flawless bogey-free front nine in four-under par saw him briefly tease a repeat of his Open record for an opening round at St Andrews in 2010 – a nine-under par round of 63.
But despite somewhat cooling off coming in, it was clear McIlroy relishes the closing holes, littered with psychological challenges and tantalising intricacies, even more.
“It never feels easy,” he remarked. “There’s pivotal moments in the round that I think. It’s just like these little parts of the rounds that just test you.
“And I feel like every time the round did that to me today, I was able to come through it. The 2-putt from 60 feet for bogey on 13, and the up-and-down for birdie on 14 and the 2-putt on 17.
“There’s just little parts of the round that it sort of shows you where you’re at with everything and mentally, physically, and I came through all those little tests today unscathed, and I’m really proud of that. So it might have looked easy, but there’s certain parts of the round that are challenging.”
An army of supporters, some five-deep on the other side of the ropes, have created something of a home fixture for McIlroy. Loud cries of ‘Come on Rory’ echoed around this magical corner of Fife. The sheer appetite for McIlroy to lift another Claret Jug is increasingly palpable when the defending champion Collin Morikawa is able to sneak onto the tee box seconds later. A scrappy opening round of 72 for Morikawa, salvaged with birdie on the 18th, saw him remove his hat and brush his hair in relief beneath the towering grandstands. Still in the tournament, just about, the 25-year-old, joined by fellow major champions Justin Thomas and Shane Lowry at even par, will need to go low on Friday to chip away at their eight-shot deficit to the dominant Cameron Young after a sublime round of 64.
But a more mature McIlroy, flirting with the prospect of a new chapter of dominant golf, has established himself as the favourite with three rounds remaining, particularly with his relaxed demeanour, which should shield him from repeating his infamous collapse to shoot a second-round 81 in turbulent conditions here in 2010. His humour now only extenuates his brilliance on the course, teasing playing partners Xander Schauffele (-3) and Morikawa after clattering the fairway stone on the fifth to hold up one of his crushing drives: “I still hit it past the other two.”
But not everybody was able to blaze their way around the Old Course, there is still a menacing edge to some holes and hidden pins – perhaps the last weapon at its disposal without so much as a breeze to swirl around this famous university town.
The lure of the Road Hole, especially, punishes greed, as Schauffele discovered with a heavy pitch. A delightfully creative putt from the tarmac, bumping it into the ground to send the ball spinning up and over the verge, could not prevent him from making bogey, showing the pitfalls of keeping up with what promises to be a red-hot pace.
A returning Tiger Woods is still the only rival to McIlroy in golf when it comes to sheer interest and fascination, but after unravelling early, slipping to four-over after four holes, Friday might just see him bid farewell for the final time in an Open Championship at St Andrews.
Elsewhere, Cameron Smith beautifully plotted his way around early on, too. A genuine contender, the Aussie sits one behind McIlroy and three off the pace after a 67 as he continues his pursuit of a major breakthrough.
While Scottie Scheffler, the world’s best player, is also firmly in contention to add a Claret Jug to his Green Jacket in what would be a fifth win in one of the most dominant years the sport has ever seen.
It is also worth emphasising that this passionate crowd, while intelligent and generous in its support, is cognisant of the changing winds in this sport and the lurking presence of LIV Golf. One of the Saudi tour’s rebels, Ian Poulter, was booed on the first tee, triggering an alarming hook on one of the easiest opening fairways in major golf. A bristling Poulter, who recovered to post 69 in a tie for 10th, rejected hearing the jeers, but a nightmarish scenario for The R&A and a LIV Golf winner come Sunday is very real after Lee Westwood (-4), Bryson Dechambeau (-3) and Dustin Johnson (-4) tamed the Old Course.
But after leading in the PGA Championship at Southern Hills and trailing by one in the US Open at Brookline after round one, McIlroy continues to take a liking to major Thursdays. Maybe, finally, it is his time again.