Rory's Portrush Dream Turns Into Open Nightmare
RORY McILROY’S Open dream turned into a nightmare of the worst possible kind as he returned to the magnificent Dunluce links at Royal Portrush where he once shot a 61 as a 16-year-old and found that the golfing gods were not on his side. He started with a quadruple-bogey eight, finished with a triple-bogey seven and the stuff in between wasn’t a whole lot better. It all added up to a horrible 79, eight over par.
He drove the ball poorly and he putted abysmally. He was cheered to the hilt on all 18 holes but the fanatical Irish fans could not quite believe what they had seen. This wasn’t in the script. The Northern Irishman admitted afterwards that he had been nervous when he stood on the first tee, but not even he could have foreseen what was going to happen next. With an iron in his hands he hooked his opening drive out of bounds. He then put his fourth shot into a near-unplayable lie and walked off the green with an eight. When he dropped a shot at the third he was five over par. There were a couple of birdies to close out the front nine, but it was all a struggle.
At the 18th hole he found another awful lie from the tee and ran up a seven. “To be honest, after that eight on the first hole I felt that the pressure was off a little,” he said. “It couldn’t get any worse, or so I thought. I was proud of the way that I hung in and kept battling away and if I could have got into the clubhouse on two over par then I would have felt that I was still in the tournament. My drive at the 18th actually wasn’t that bad. I only missed the fairway by a few feet, but my lie was just terrible.” What he failed to mention was that the 18th is probably the widest fairway on the course.
Earlier, Darren Clarke had threatened to roll back the years. He got it to three under par at one point but struggled towards the end and signed for a 71. Graeme McDowell, who was born and brought up in Portrush, fought back the tears on the first tee, such was the ovation he received. And it inspired him. He got off to a flying start and found himself near the top of the leaderboard. But it all came undone at the finish. He dropped a shot at the 17th and then lost his ball in the rough to the right of the 18th. Agonisingly, it was found 10 seconds after the referee called time on the search. He trudged back to the tee. Like McIlroy, he, too, ended the round with a seven and finished with a 73.
But Shane Lowry did give the home fans something to cheer about, and his 67 should surprise nobody. He loves links golf. He birdied the third, fifth and ninth to reach the turn in 33, three under par. There was a dropped shot at the 11th, but he birdied the 10th and 12th and parred in to come home in 34 and found himself leading the field. Queued up behind him on 68 was a group that included Sergio Garcia, Alex Noren and Scotland’s Bob McIntyre.
“I was quite anxious going out there this morning,” Lowry said. “The wind was up early. But the first few holes played okay, downwind and I got off to a nice solid start. I was off and running and I was enjoying myself and I played some good golf. Look, I missed a couple of chances coming in, but I got a great break, and a good up and down on 16. I also had a great break on 17, and managed to make par. I'm fairly happy with four-under. I thoroughly enjoyed it and the crowds are unbelievable and cheered on every tee box.
“Every green is such a special feeling. I tried to enjoy that as much as I can while I was doing my work and then getting down to business. It's going to be an exciting few days ahead. It's The Open, it's in Ireland. I'm playing well, I feel like I should come up and do well. Why shouldn't I feel uneasy? I'm sure there's plenty of golfers standing on the first feeling uneasy.”
And on a day when we saw all four seasons, it looked for a long time like nobody would catch Lowry. But the breeze eased in the afternoon and, mercifully, so did the rain. So who would catch or overtake Lowry? Would it be world No 1 Brooks Koepka? Or what about Tommy Fleetwood, the Englishman who arrived in Northern Ireland somewhat under the radar, even though he hasn’t missed a cut all year.
Inevitably, Koepka got off to a fast start with birdies at the second and fifth, and when he added another at the 12th he was three under and just one behind Lowry. And when he birdied the 14th, Lowry had finally been caught. Pars followed at the 15th and 16th. He missed the fairway at the 17th and was unable to reach the par four in two and dropped a shot to fall back to three under.
So what of the English challenge? By his own admission, Tyrrell Hatton has had a pretty poor season and has seen his world ranking go backwards in a hurry. But he has brought his A-game to Royal Portrush. He reached the turn in one under par and when he birdied the 17th he had also moved to four under. Next to join the group on four under was Jon Rahm, the Spaniard who won the Irish Open less than two weeks ago. He birdied the second, fourth, seventh and eighth. And when he also birdied the ninth hole he was out in 31, five under par, and led The Open by one. The back nine caught up with him, however, and he ended up having to settle for a 68.
Hatton missed the 18th fairway and dropped his only shot of the day, signing for a 68. Fleetwood, meanwhile, had three birdies and 13 pars as he reached the 17th tee on three under par. He safely negotiated the final two holes for another 68. It was a popular score.
Ryan Fox, of New Zealand, took 39 shots to cover the front nine. Heaven alone knows what he took on the 10th tee but whatever it was, it transformed him - he came home in 29 for what will surely be the most unlikely 68 of the entire week. “I felt I was playing all right on the front nine and just made a couple of mistakes,” Fox said. “I have been struggling lately and have got in my own way. I have missed seven cuts in a row. But when I holed a birdie putt on the 12th everything suddenly clicked into place and I was able to turn a poor round into a pretty decent one.”
Late in the day, Lowry was finally overtaken by the big-hitting American JB Holmes, who shot a wonderful round of 66 after dropping a shot at the opening hole.
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