HOYLAKE, England — He racked up six birdies without a bogey, and when he found himself with an awkward lie in the greenside bunker at 18, he played smart and came out sideways, even though it meant he would fail to birdie the par-5. Rory McIlroy did most everything right in firing an opening 66 to lead the 143rd British Open at Royal Liverpool.
Now he just has to keep it going — easier said than done in 2014.
McIlroy sat atop a star-packed leaderboard, which included Tiger Woods’ surprising, three-under-par 69. Woods was playing his first major in almost a year and making only his second start since undergoing major back surgery in late March.
“I’m getting stronger, I’m getting faster, I’m getting more explosive,” said Woods, who won the last of his 14 major championships at the 2008 U.S. Open. “The ball is starting to travel again. Those are positive things.”
McIlroy leads Matteo Manassero of Italy by one shot, and six others are two back. Morning starters Sergio Garcia, Jim Furyk, Brooks Koepka and the Molinari brothers — Edoardo and Francesco — shot 68. Australian Adam Scott, whose tee-to-green game is proving to be a perfect fit for the British, where he finished T-3 last year and second in 2011, and Shane Lowry of Ireland were the only players from the afternoon wave to post 68.
Rickie Fowler, who already has tied for fifth at the Masters and tied for second at the U.S. Open in 2014, was three back after a 69.
No one knows what to expect from McIlroy, whose history of second-round struggles now has a name: Freaky Friday. Since March, McIlroy has shot second rounds of 74 (Doral), 77 (Masters), 76 (Wells Fargo), 74 (Players), 78 (after an opening 63 at the Memorial), and another 78 (after carding a first-round 64 at last week’s Aberdeen Scottish Open).
Not surprisingly he won none of those tournaments. “Hopefully it’s just one of those things,” he said, “and I’m able to turn it around tomorrow.”
Woods, whose game has been even less predictable than McIlroy’s this year, made a vintage-Tiger five birdies in six holes on the back nine.
“It wasn’t exactly the greatest of starts,” said Woods, who went off in calm, sunny conditions at 9:04 a.m. and bogeyed his first two holes. “But I turned it around and ground my way around. It felt like, even though I was two over through two, I still had four par-5s to go and a couple short holes.”
Woods and the other morning starters seemed to get the better of the conditions. Scott, who bogeyed the last four holes to lose to Ernie Els by a shot in 2012, jump-started his round with an eagle at the par-5 5th. Playing late in the day, Lowry roared home with a five-under 32.
Defending champion Phil Mickelson, also playing in the afternoon, got under par with a birdie at the par-5 10th, but he bogeyed three of the last six holes to shoot 74.
The solid round from Woods, coming as it did just a month after he shot 74-75 to miss the cut at the Quicken Loans National at Congressional — his first start after surgery — was perhaps the surprise of the day. He hit 10 of 14 fairways and 14 greens in regulation. Eight years after he won his third of three British Open titles at Hoylake hitting driver just once over 72 holes, Woods used it just once on Thursday, at the par-5 16th, where he made the last of his six birdies.
As for McIlroy, 25, who was widely expected to replace Woods at the top of the game, it’s been a tumultuous two years since he won his second major, at the 2012 PGA at Kiawah. He moved to Florida, changed his equipment, left and then sued his management company, and broke off his engagement to his girlfriend. He has successfully played through much of the upheaval, to judge by his litany of low rounds this year. Alas, he hasn’t won much — only at the BMW PGA Championship in May. The Euro tour’s flagship event marked one of the few instances this year in which he posted a good second-round score. He rallied for a one-under-par 71 after making the turn at three over.
McIlroy will need to shoot a solid second round at Hoylake in order to stop the Freaky Friday questions, which he nonetheless patiently answered. He was asked if Jack Nicklaus gave him any advice on the Friday problems. (Nicklaus did not.) He was asked questions about the Friday problem that began, “Sorry to keep asking about the Friday problem…” The only question he wasn’t asked about his second-round struggles was if he was thinking of opening a chain of restaurants called, “Oh, God, It’s Friday.”
These will presumably not be such soothing swing thoughts as the leader goes out at 2:27 p.m. for round two (9:27 a.m. Eastern time), but McIlroy sounded up to the task. “I’ve just got to start off trying to hit solid shots the first few holes and play my way into the round, just like I did today,” he said.