HOYLAKE, England — Concentrate on what happened Thursday, for now, because it was just about flawless. For Rory McIlroy, Friday can wait. Thursday brought a bogey-free 66. Thursday brought the lead after the first round of the British Open. Thursday brought what it so often does for McIlroy: bliss.
“When you go back out on Friday after a good score, you know what you can do on the golf course,” McIlroy said. “So you’re going out with some expectations compared to when, on Thursday, you’re going out with not many.”
The British Open has barely started at Royal Liverpool Golf Club, and McIlroy’s 6 under par makes him the most intriguing name in a jumble of them. Matteo Manassero, the dashing 21-year-old Italian, is a shot back at 67. Adam Scott, the top-ranked player in the world, joins Jim Furyk, Sergio Garcia, Brooks Koepka, Shane Lowry and brothers Francesco and Edoardo Molinari at 68. None other than Tiger Woods, playing in a major championship for the first time this year, is among those lurking after a promising 69.
But there will be two reasons to flip on the television in the wee hours of Friday morning for the second round. First, to say goodbye to the balmy, benign coast of England because the breeze — barely existent on Thursday morning, a bit firmer in the afternoon — is due here in force. If forecasts are correct, it will be followed by proper British Open rain on Saturday.
Second, tune in for McIlroy because as good as he is — twice a major champion, formerly ranked No. 1 in the world, a brilliant ball-striker — there’s simply no telling what he might do the day after he opens a tournament sublimely.
“It’s not like I’ve shot good scores in first rounds and haven’t backed them up before,” McIlroy said. “I’m used to doing that. I just haven’t done it recently.”
This is all well-documented, a mini-theme in the golf world over the course of this year. They’re not just little bobbles, a slightly higher scoring average on Friday than Thursday. No, McIlroy opened the Memorial with a 63 and followed with a 78 . He opened last week’s Scottish Open with a 64 and followed with a 78 . Six times in his past eight Friday rounds — dating from a second-round 74 at Doral — he has failed to break 40 on either the front or back nine.
Go back even further, in this tournament. In 2010 at St. Andrews, McIlroy played one of the best rounds of his career on Thursday, a what-can’t-he-do 63. “Sixty-three at St. Andrews was a better round of golf,” McIlroy said, comparing that round to this one. “But there were similarities in there.” He hopes, then, the similarities end there because he followed with an unsightly 80 .
“Finished third,” McIlroy responded when reminded of that dreck.
Such volatility almost certainly won’t be overcome around here, what with the weather due to come in. The shots that stayed straight and landed softly Thursday morning — when 15 of the top 18 players on the leader board teed off — could easily go astray over the next two days.
“It was the perfect day to enjoy it,” said Garcia, who finished tied for fifth here in 2006. “The weather doesn’t get much better than that.”
That, though, is a matter of opinion. Some would prefer to play the British Open at the British Open.
“Bring it on,” said Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland, who found the sun displeasing in his 74. “Bring on the stuff now.”
When Woods posted his 18-under 270 to win here in 2006, each day was dry, making the course vulnerable, if still tricky. That doesn’t figure to be attainable this week.
“Guys aren’t going to go really low here,” Woods said. “We’re going to be bunched. . . . That’s kind of the way this championship, I think, is going to unfold.”
McIlroy has no way to know how it will unfold. He said earlier in the week that the second-round issue “just got in my head.” But he is somehow at peace on Thursdays, and it showed here. He birdied three of the four par-5s — considered a key at Royal Liverpool. But his day got pointed in the right direction when he made a beautiful 6-iron swing from 190 yards out at the second, sticking it to tap-in range.
“That’s the advantage, sometimes, of having a high ball flight in links when there’s no wind,” McIlroy said. “You’re able to bring it down like that and stop it close to the pin.”
Those days are likely over for the week. Expect the British Open to look like the British Open again. Whether Friday will feel like Friday for McIlroy remains to be seen.