ST ANDREWS, Scotland // Rory McIlroy sets himself such high standards that a rare blemish on an outstanding first-round card at St Andrews occupied his reflective mind yesterday as much as a magnificent eagle and seven birdies. The Northern Irishman is regarded as the strongest challenger to Tiger Woods at the 150th anniversary staging of the British Open and he demonstrated why as he set a sizzling early pace on nine under par.
After a steady start to his third Open, McIlroy sprang into life as he approached the turn. A booming drive on the ninth landed only 15 feet away from its flagstick target 352 yards away and a solid eagle putt proved to be the spur for a run of five birdies in the next six holes. At that point he was contemplating breaking the record for the best round in a major championship and he had it within his grasp as he stood over another birdie putt from five feet on the extraordinarily difficult 17th.
"I remember watching Tiger at the US PGA in Tulsa and he lipped out for a 62," said McIlroy. "I started thinking to myself 'if I can birdie this hole I've got a chance of birdieing the last for a 62' and I suppose that's why I missed it." The concluding birdie duly arrived in front of the gallery surrounding the 18th, leaving McIlroy, a former Dubai Desert Classic winner, as one of 24 players who share the best score in a major of 63. He stands alone, though, as holder of the lowest first-round score in the history of this showpiece event.
It also left him drawing comparisons with his record-breaking round of 61 at Royal Portrush, a few miles north of his Belfast home and an Open venue in 1951. "I think that round was better," he said, "because I was only 16 at the time." McIlroy sensed, when he opened his hotel room curtains yesterday morning, that another good score was on the cards. He had gone to bed the previous evening fearing the worst after struggling to complete his final practice round in the wind and rain on Wednesday.
"When I looked out the window it was perfect," he said "No wind, grey skies, but no rain. I just knew that the scoring was going to be good and that I had to take advantage of the conditions. You are never going to get St Andrews playing any easier than this." McIlroy's nine-under-par 63 extended a remarkable sequence of scoring for the youngster at the course in east Scotland. He has now completed nine competitive rounds on the Old Course, six times as an amateur and has been in the 60s on each occasion. "I've been very lucky with the weather here," he said apologetically.
It looked as though McIlroy was going to have company holding the clubhouse lead as South Africa's Louis Oosthuizen hit a similar hot streak midway through his opening round. Oosthuizen went from one under to six under in the space of six holes and then got to within a stroke of McIlroy with successive birdies at the 14th and 15th. Like the early first day leader John Daly, however, his momentum was interrupted by a bogey at the 17th Road Hole and he had to settle for a 65.
"There were a lot of birdies to be had out there early on but it got a bit windy from the 12th onwards," said Oosthuizen. "So I was very happy to keep it going. I've been playing well for a while now." Shortly after Oosthuizen signed his seven-under-par card, the wretched weather that spoiled the pre-tournament anniversary celebrations returned to make it even harder for those still on the course to catch McIlroy.
Among the late starters was England's Lee Westwood, who had roared in contention with five birdies in a row. But his charge stalled in the worst of the conditions and he had to settle for a 67, four shots off the pace. Between the world No 3 and second-placed Oosthuizen were Daly and a trio of Britons - Andrew Coltart, Steven Tiley and Bradley Dredge - sharing third place on six under par. @Email:email@example.com