Rory McIlroy clenched his fist as he saved par at the last hole in his opening round at Royal Liverpool Golf Club.
It’s still early in the 151st British Open but McIlroy wanted to make the putt and avoid shooting an over-par round. He battled back from 2-over through his first 12 holes to post an even-par 71 on Thursday. It wasn’t the round that McIlroy, who won last Sunday at the Genesis Scottish Open and is bidding to end a nine-year winless drought in the majors, was looking for but he didn’t dig himself too big of a hole either.
McIlroy got into red figures with a birdie at the second, but dropped a shot at the fourth and then lipped out a 2-foot par putt at No. 8. He squandered a chance to get it back at the ninth and after another bogey at 12, it was beginning to look as if this might be another missed opportunity at a major.
Going for the par 5 in two, McIlroy hit his second shot into a pot bunker short and left of the green. When he got there, he found his ball had rolled up against the face. After a long deliberation – playing partner Jon Rahm was facing the same situation in a different bunker – McIlroy tried to go out sideways but didn’t clear the bunker wall, the ball bouncing back into the sand and settling in one of his footprints.
Although he now had enough room to get the ball airborne and onto the green, he didn’t have room for a stance. With his right foot planted in the sand and his left leg bent at the knee and outside the bunker, McIlroy took his fourth stroke and watched as the ball cleared the steep face and stopped 10 feet past the pin.
McIlroy paid for his next mistake, a visit to a greenside bunker leading to a dropped shot on 4, and a short putt bouncing out at 8 meant he arrived at the turn with ground to make up.
His card read two-over at the 13th tee, seven shots adrift of the lead, and there was a very real risk he would leave himself too much to do over the next three days.
But the four-time major winner is never too far from a hot streak and consecutive birdies restored parity before a trademark rollercoaster of emotions down the last.
His approach landed right at the face of a greenside bunker to which ‘best avoided’ would be an understatement and his first attempt at getting out sideways landed back in the sand.
The lie was kinder – though not by much – and McIlroy was forced into an unorthodox stance, his left leg resting at an angle on top of the bunker as he attempted a shot which many would not even have considered.
McIlroy’s gamble paid off, a remarkable wedge landing 10 feet from the pin before a putt which was sunk to keep him very much in the conversation. The ball barely cleared the lip then slowly rolled down past the flag, leaving McIlroy a 10-footer for par which he would drain. He then gave a fist pump, expelling all the frustration of the 18th hole.
“I wouldn’t have been too happy walking off the 18th with a bogey, especially after the two shots I hit in there,” McIlroy said. “It’s just when you hit it into these bunkers you’re sort of riding your luck at that point and hoping it’s not up against one of those revetted faces. Jon (Rahm) and I didn’t have much of a shot with our thirds, so then you’re just hoping to make par somehow and get out of there.”
A winner at Royal Liverpool in 2014, the Ulsterman is playing in his 14th Open and has never been in contention on Sunday when he has been outside the top 20 in Thursday’s first round. He currently sits T32.
His even-par 70 on Thursday is only the sixth time he hasn’t broken 70 in the first round.
McIlroy, Rahm and Justin Rose will start off at 9:58 a.m. local time (4:58 a.m. ET) Friday with hopes that the winds forecast at 5-15 mph are consistent and the potential gusts of 25 mph are left for the afternoon.
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