He’s the hero we need right now, but don’t deserve.
Golf’s current white knight, Rory McIlroy, opened the 150th Open Championship with a scintillating 6-under 66 over the Old Course at St. Andrews, delighting the over 40,000 attendant fans and millions more worldwide hoping to see him win his first major championship in eight years and his second Claret Jug. On a mild, sunny and calm morning, McIlroy posted seven birdies, including bookends at Nos. 1 and 18 and three consecutive at hole Nos. 5, 6 and 7 -- a notably difficult stretch of the golf course. His opening birdie featured a 54-foot, downhill and double-breaking birdie putt that tumbled into a cup cut dangerously close to the edge of Swilcan Burn.
The ovation from the fans was deafening. You could hear it all the way to Holywood.
McIlroy stands alone in second place, two shots behind American Cameron Young at 8-under. Australia’s Cameron Smith and Scotland’s Robert Dinwiddie are tied for third three shots behind Smith and one behind McIlroy. Seven players stand at 4 under, including reigning Masters champion Scottie Scheffler and two-time major winner Dustin Johnson.
“Yeah, fantastic start. Just sort of what you hope will happen when you're starting off your week,” McIlroy noted post-round. “I did everything that you're supposed to do around St Andrews. I birdied the holes that are birdieable. And I made pars at the holes where you're sort of looking to make a par and move to the next tee. And didn't really put myself out of position too much.”
“Boring golf” -- that’s what McIlroy calls fairways and greens, and he prefers his rounds that way. No muss, no fuss, no adventure -- just a leisurely stroll amidst a sea of friends (or at least friendlies).
“Everything feels very settled,” he stated confidently. “No real issues with my game. Everything feels like it's in good shape. Everything feels just sort of nice and quiet, which is a nice way to be.”
It was McIlroy’s third-consecutive major with an opening sub-par round that vaulted him in contention early. McIlroy fired a 67 to open last month’s US Open at The Country Club where he finished tied for fifth, and he posted a 65 to begin the PGA Championship at Southern Hills, where he finished eighth. In between, he won the RBC Canadian Open with a final-round 62.
“I came in here playing well, and I've played this golf course well over the years. So I knew if I just went out there and played my game and stuck to my game plan, that something like this was possible,” he said evenly.
“I think I've played with a little more freedom because I can, because I'm in more control of my swing and my game. And I think it sort of goes hand in hand. I have confidence and I can go out and play free and not be maybe as timid and tight starting off. And as I said, three majors in a row now where I feel like that, which is a really nice feeling considering how I have felt previously at times.”
McIroy is a four-time major champion, including the 2014 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool. He had three consecutive top-five appearances immediately following that win but posted two poor performances since then, including a disappointing missed cut when the Open triumphantly returned to Northern Ireland in 2019. This is Rory’s 13th Open appearance.
Rory has become an Atlas of golf in these turbulent times, leading the PGA Tour's pushback against what some call the parasitic, empty-suited, money-gorged LIV Golf circuit. While players young and old are tripping over themselves taking bloated sums from Saudi Arabian royalty to play in a short series of no-cut events, silly season-ish events, McIlroy not only stayed loyal to the PGA Tour and DP World Tour, he’s been vocal and firm in defending tradition.
“In my opinion it's the right thing to do. The PGA Tour was created by people and tour players that came before us, the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer,” McIlroy stated before last month’s US Open. “They created something and worked hard for something, and I hate to see all the players that came before us and all the hard work that they've put in just come out to be nothing.”
Happily, once the tournament got underway, the specter of LIV faded, and the magic of the Open Championship enchanted us as it has since 1860. The day was joyful, heartwarming, and even silly: Scotsman Paul Lawrie hit the opening tee shot straight into position A for an opening birdie, golfers were twisted into yoga-like contortions trying to explicate themselves from tiny riveted pot bunkers, and, of course, the Road hole gave us some magic.
Playing his fourth shot at the 17th hole, and seemingly snookered in perhaps the most fearsome bunker on the planet, Si Woo Kim holed a 55-foot shot across the green, hurling his club into the air in ecstasy as the normally calm UK fans erupted into chaos celebrating.
A the sun set, lighting the Olde Toon and the Firth of Forth in dazzling hues, the leader board sizzles, the tournament buzzes and one name stands in neon in everyone’s mind: Rory. Has this season been a long build-up to a storybook finish? On so many levels a McIlroy victory would be a thunderclap across the golf landscape as well as a marker in the record books. St. Andrews deserves it. Golf needs it. After a long, eight-year wait, Rory, peaking at perhaps the right time, would ascend even further into immortal status. And aty the end of the day, that’s what the Open Championship is about: immortality.