ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Rory McIlroy thought for about 2 seconds, then rattled off the answer to a question with the greatest of ease.
“69, 69, 67, 68, 67, 68, 65, 69, 63,” the 21-year-old said.
He was asked if he could remember all of the scores he’s shot at the Old Course in competition.
Not that the first eight numbers aren’t impressive, it’s just that the ninth is the one he shot here to tie a major championship record and lead the first round of his beloved Open Championship on his beloved Old Course, a place he first saw in 2007 at the St. Andrews Links Trophy.
Speaking of Tiger, it was McIlroy who played the part of a young Tiger Thursday around the home of golf by willing the ball into the hole. He was only 1 under after eight holes, but hit driver to 15 feet on the 352-yard par-4 ninth hole and slammed in the eagle putt to get things heading in proper motion.
“It just kicked on from there,” McIlroy said. “I think it does take something in your round, a little spark, a little something to get you going, and I think that was the point today where my round really got going.”
Did it ever.
McIlroy, ranked No. 9 in the Official World Ranking, then made six birdies on the homeward nine, posted a 30 and tied another Open record. He hit 13 of 16 fairways, 17 of 18 greens and needed only 28 putts.
It should’ve been 27 putts, but McIlroy admitted that he got a bit ahead of himself, thinking that he could finish with consecutive birdies to shoot a record 62. He hit a 6-iron to 3 feet on the 17th hole and jabbed the putt and ended with par, then made an easy birdie from 3 feet on the home hole for 63.
“I just said I’m going to hit it firm and I’m going to hit it straight,” McIlroy said of the hiccup putt on 17. “I hit it and I pushed it a little bit.”
Not to put an asterisk by McIlroy’s 63, but it was shot on one of the most benign days you’ll ever see here at St. Andrews. Forecasts called for wind and rain and, although it was a gray and cloudy, it was a perfect morning for scoring conditions.
McIlroy is two clear of Louis Oosthuizen and three clear of a host of others that include John Daly and Andrew Coltart. Woods and Lee Westwood are in a group at 67 and are four shots back. Those in the afternoon, including Westwood and Phil Mickelson, got the bad end of the draw as the weather was considerably worse.
Now McIlroy will be put to the ultimate test to see how he plays as a frontrunner. He has only played in two previous Open Championships and neither were a rousing success – a T-42 in 2007 at Carnoustie and a T-47 last year at Turnberry.
There is a long way to go in this championship but to date his biggest victory came this year on the PGA Tour at the Quail Hollow Championship in May when he made the cut on the number then shot 66-62 on the weekend to walk away with his maiden Tour victory. That scenario was different than this as he was five shots off the pace heading into the final round. There was no pressure on that warm North Carolina afternoon.
“He’s been on the big stage before,” Graeme McDowell said. “I don’t think there’s any risk he’ll get overexcited. He loves this golf course, he’s got a pretty mature head on young shoulders and he’s got the game to do it.”
Said McIlroy’s playing partner Lucas Glover: “Sixty-three at St. Andrews He’s capable of just about anything.”
His nine scores around the Old Course prove it.