ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — In the 137 years since the British Open first came to St. Andrews, the Old Course rarely has been such a pushover. Rarer still was the score Rory McIlroy delivered.
Whether it was the luck of the draw or his tantalizing talent really didn’t matter.
In conditions so calm that not a hair on his considerable mop was out of place, McIlroy set off on an incredible run into the record book Thursday with a 9-under 63 that gave him a two-shot lead.
“Going out there this morning with no wind, you’re never going to get St. Andrews playing any easier,” McIlroy said.
It was just as easy for John Daly, a former champion at St. Andrews and now the ultimate long shot. He first energized the gallery by bashing tee shots and making enough birdies for a 66, matching his best score in the British Open.
And it was just as easy for Tiger Woods, who ran off three straight birdies late in his round for a 67.
“The old lady had no clothes on today,” Tom Watson said after a 73.
There were 45 rounds in the 60s, 73 players broke par and the average score was under par — 71.75. Mike Weir of Bright’s Grove, Ont., was among those who didn’t get in on the action, firing a 73.
On the other hand, no one took advantage like McIlroy, a 21-year-old from Northern Ireland with a game beyond his years. His 63 tied the lowest score in any major, and it was only the second such score at St. Andrews in golf’s oldest championship.
Of the eight players who have shot 63 in the British Open, McIlroy is the only one to do it in the first round.
“I’m very happy that I was able to take advantage of those conditions,” said McIlroy, who had a two-shot lead over Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa. “And it gives me a little bit of a buffer going into the next three days, whatever weather comes our way.”
It sure didn’t feel easy in the afternoon.
Not long after McIlroy finished his round, the leaden skies over St. Andrews Bay brought showers to the Old Course and a breeze that picked up strength the rest of the afternoon.
Of the 16 players atop the leaderboard, only Peter Hanson (66), Bradley Dredge (66), Lee Westwood (67) and Y.E. Yang (67) teed off after the wind showed up at noon.
“The difference for the early and late starters was huge,” Westwood said. “You could have kicked it round in a low score this morning. The course was defenceless, and I actually expected somebody to post a 62. I don’t think I have ever known St. Andrews as calm. Hopefully, we might get a break with the weather tomorrow morning, but you never know.”
Retief Goosen turned on his television just before 10 a.m. and saw Daly at 7-under par through 11 holes. The wind already was whipping flags when he teed off, and the two-time U.S. Open champion equated his 69 to a 66 had he played in the morning.
He bore no grudges. Such is the fickle nature of links golf.
“You’ve still got to make a score,” Goosen said. “It doesn’t matter how easy it is.”
Phil Mickelson didn’t make a birdie in the afternoon until making an eight-foot putt on the last hole for a 73, and walking off the course without speaking to reporters.
McIlroy’s amazing run began with a drive that he hit onto the green at the 352-yard ninth hole to about 15 feet below the hole. He knocked that in for birdie and was on his way. The freckled-face kid followed with a sand wedge to 6 feet on the 10th for birdie, a seven-iron to eight feet for birdie on the 11th, and two putts from 50 feet on the short 12th hole.
It was so low — and so there for the taking — that even after a record-tying round, he thought about the one that got away.
McIlroy was 8 under when he flew his approach dangerously close over the Road Hole bunker on the 17th, leaving him a five-foot birdie putt. Make that, and he goes to the 357-yard 18th with a shot at 62.
“It sort of went through my mind on 17 that 62 would have been the lowest round in a major,” McIlroy said. “That’s probably why I missed the putt.”
He already shot a 62 earlier this year on a course that was far tougher than St. Andrews on Thursday — Quail Hollow for his first victory in America. It was another example why so many have predicted stardom for him. He also shot a 61 at Royal Portrush when he was 16.
This was different.
“I think it probably is the most special just because it’s at St. Andrews,” McIlroy said. “And it’s the Open Championship.”
Oosthuizen looked as though he might have a chance to join McIlroy. He also was at 8-under playing the 17th until making a bogey, then failing to pick up a stroke on the last hole and settling for a 65.
Not often does someone open with a 65 in a major and trail by two shots. This was not a typical opening round in a major.
“It just goes to show you that the golf course could have been had,” Woods said. “When I was playing either 17 or 18, to be in the top 10 you had to be 5-under. You don’t see that at too many majors.”
For Woods, it was the first time in eight rounds in an Open at St. Andrews — dating to July 20, 2000 — that he was not atop the leaderboard at the end of a round.
He made his move through the loop, then ended his string of three straight birdies on the par-5 14th. Woods was moving closer to the lead until he badly pulled a four-foot par putt on the 17th, then missed a 10-foot birdie try on the last hole.
“I’m in good shape,” Woods said. “I took advantage of the golf course when I needed to take advantage of it. As of right now, we’re on the good side of the draw. But you don’t know tomorrow.”
Woods won the last two times on the Old Course by a combined 13 shots, and his bid to become the first player with three claret jugs at the home of golf is still in the picture.
Asked if he could catch McIlroy, Woods replied, “We’ve still got three more rounds.”
Five players were only three shots behind at 66, a group that includes Daly, who won at St. Andrews in 1995, the last time the weather acted up. Those in the large group with Woods included Westwood, PGA champion Y.E. Yang and former U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover.
Defending champion Stewart Cink opened with a 70, despite catching St. Andrews lying down.
In the nine times McIlroy has competed at St. Andrews, as an amateur and a pro, he has broken 70 every time.
“I’ve actually never played St. Andrews when the weather has been that bad,” McIlroy said. “That’s probably why my scores have been quite good.”