McIlroy grabs early Open lead with 66


Amid sunny skies and benign conditions, several of the game's best players went low Thursday at Royal Liverpool. None were better than Rory McIlroy, though, as the Ulsterman leads after the first round of the Open Championship for the second time in the last five years:

Leaderboard: Rory McIlroy (-6), Matteo Manassero (-5), Brooks Koepka (-4), Adam Scott (-4), Jim Furyk (-4), Sergio Garcia (-4), Francesco Molinari (-4), Edoardo Molinari (-4), Tiger Woods (-3)

What it means: Conditions were ideal for scoring in the opening round, as the main defenses at Hoylake - wind and rain - were nowhere to be found. McIlroy was out early and took the lead with a 66, as most of the low scores came from the early half of the tee times. One exception was world No. 1 Scott, who carded a 68 to remain in the hunt. This marks the second time McIlroy has held an early lead at the Open, following a first-round 63 at St. Andrews in 2010.

Round of the day: McIlroy got off to a quick start, with three birdies across his first six holes, and completed his opening round without dropping a shot. He birdied two of the three par-5s on the inward half, Nos. 10 and 16, and found 14 of 18 greens in regulation while averaging more than 340 yards off the tee. It's the second straight week that he has broken away from the pack on a links course, having shot an opening 63 last week at Royal Aberdeen.

Best of the rest: Manassero burst onto the scene with his win at the BMW PGA Championship last year, and the 21-year-old put his name on a major championship leaderboard after an opening 67 at Royal Liverpool. The Italian birdied two of his first three holes and then added five birdies on the back nine, more than enough to counter dropped shots at Nos. 9 and 12, while hitting 15 of 18 greens in regulation.

Biggest disappointment: Ernie Els is just two years removed from lifting the claret jug, but the South African is destined for an early exit after an opening 79. Els was visibly shaken after hitting a fan with his opening tee shot and then had a nearly-inexplicable three-putt from inside 2 feet that led to a triple bogey on No. 1. He went on to play his first seven holes in 7 over and recorded his first - and only - birdie of the day at the par-5 16th to keep it out of the 80s.

Main storyline heading into Friday: McIlroy's second-round struggles have been well documented, so it remains to be seen if he can buck the recent trend and remain in front. No shortage of elite players are close behind, though, including Woods who shook off a pair of opening bogeys to card a 69. The weather forecast is a bit more pessimistic for the second round, so Mother Nature could make her influence known during parts of the day Friday.

Quote of the day: "I feel like I’m well-prepared this week for whatever the conditions. I’ve practiced in windy conditions the last few weeks. I’ve practiced the shots that I might need for a bad day like (Friday) might be." - McIlroy