World number one Brooks Koepka cruised into contention for a fifth major title in his last 10 starts as Rory McIlroy’s hopes of ending his five-year drought were effectively ended by two nightmare holes in the 148th Open.
At the venue where he announced himself as a star of the future with a course record of 61 aged 16, McIlroy began with an eight and finished with a seven in a demoralising opening 79 at Royal Portrush.
At eight over par McIlroy was 13 shots off the pace set by American JB Holmes, whose 66 gave him a one-shot lead over Ireland’s Shane Lowry, with Koepka part of a 13-strong group which included Scotland’s Robert MacIntyre and the English trio of Tyrrell Hatton, Tommy Fleetwood and Lee Westwood.
McIlroy was not the only big name to struggle in the wind and rain, Masters champion Tiger Woods acknowledging his only birdie of the day on the 15th by licking his index finger and drawing a number one in the air in weary celebration.
Woods eventually signed for a 78 to card his highest opening round in 21 Open appearances, three shots higher than his previous worst of 75 in 1996 when he was still an amateur.
Koepka finished second in the Masters in April, successfully defended his US PGA title the following month and was runner-up to Gary Woodland in the US Open at Pebble Beach in June.
No player in the modern era has placed in the top two in all four majors in a calendar year, but the 29-year-old made the most of the local knowledge of his caddie Ricky Elliott, who hails from Portrush, as he carded four birdies and one bogey in his 68.
“Obviously he knows this golf course like the back of his hand,” Koepka said.
“It’s fun. It’s easy when he’s just standing on the tee telling you to hit it in this spot and I just listen to him. I don’t have to think much.
“I’ve hit it unbelievable the last couple of days. I’m very pleased with the way I’m striking it. I feel good. I feel very comfortable. It’s a major championship. That’s what you’re trying to peak for.”
Lowry’s 67 was his best opening round in any major and came after a pub pep talk with his coach Neil Manchip on Wednesday.
“We went for a coffee down at the Bushmills Inn and we found a little quiet room, we had a great chat for about 40 minutes,” Lowry said.
“We just put everything out in the open, everything out on the table, what could happen, what might happen.
“I left that room full of confidence and ready to go and it’s my best (opening major round) by about eight shots.
“That was nice. It was nice to shoot a good score and hopefully I can go out and keep at it the next few days.”
New Zealand’s Ryan Fox was part of the large group on three under after firing six birdies in the last seven holes to card the first back nine of 29 in Open history.
“I’ve missed seven cuts in a row and to figure it out in a major is certainly nice,” Fox said. “It’s the first round in a while where I had some fun and some control over the golf ball.”
An understandably nervous McIlroy could certainly not say the same as he ran up a quadruple-bogey on the first after pulling his tee shot out of bounds on the 424-yard par four.
McIlroy’s wayward iron shot hit a female spectator and damaged a mobile phone in her pocket before ending up five feet outside the white posts which mark the internal out of bounds.
The four-time major winner then found the left rough with his second attempt and hacked his fourth shot into a bush from where he took a penalty drop, chipped to seven feet and two-putted for a demoralising eight.
Another shot went at the third before McIlroy birdied the seventh and ninth to reach the turn in three over, but after six straight pars he three-putted from five feet to double bogey the 16th and then ran up a triple-bogey seven on the 18th to complete a miserable day.
McIlroy looks for his ball on the fifth green (Niall Carson/PA)
“I’d be disappointed regardless, whether it was here or St Andrews or Birkdale or any of the other tournaments or majors,” McIlroy said.
“So, yeah, I’m disappointed, but at the end of the day I’m still the same person.
“I’m going to go back and see my family, see my friends, and hopefully they don’t think any less of me after a performance like that today. And I’ll dust myself off and come back out tomorrow and try to do better.”