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Here we go again.
For the third straight major, Rory McIlroy has leaped out to post a strong first round — in this case, a 66 at the British Open that left him two strokes off the lead. For the third straight major, McIlroy is in an ideal position to snap a major-less streak that now stretches nearly eight years. The next three days are, for now, a mystery, but once again, McIlroy looks absolutely primed and ready to add another major victory to his total.
If you're looking for reasons to worry, there's this: after all his fast starts this year, he stumbled. Not much, but enough to cost him a win. He posted a 65 in the first round of the PGA Championship to lead the tournament, but eventually finished three strokes back thanks to a Saturday 74. He carded a 67 at the U.S. Open, one stroke off the lead, and finished four strokes back after a Saturday 73. (He also finished solo second at the Masters, but that was only because he threw down a Sunday 64 long after Scottie Scheffler had run away from the field.)
On the other hand, if you're looking for reasons to hope, there's this: McIlroy is kicking so hard at the door that it has to break someday. Moreover, he's bearing up well under the pressure of the tournament. He missed the tournament at St. Andrews in 2015 when he was the defending champion and on a Tiger-esque roll. He came into this tournament carrying the burden of expectation and the spotlight that comes with being elevated onto a pedestal alongside Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus. And yet, he still managed to perform well from the jump.
That hasn't always been the case for McIlroy. Three years ago, he began the 2019 Open under the spotlight at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland by stumbling to an opening quadruple-bogey 8. This time around, he birdied the first hole with a 55-foot putt that started his round in fifth gear.
"As first tee shots go, it's pretty easy, hitting a 4-iron into 120-yard fairway," McIlroy said after the round. "There's always anticipation, I guess, and wanting to get off to a good start. And I always have first tee nerves. But once that first tee shot's gone and out of the way, you sort of get into your routine and you're just playing golf. And that's where I feel most comfortable."
McIlroy felt comfortable enough to card seven birdies against a single bogey. He ended the day two strokes behind PGA Tour rookie Cameron Young, and fortunately was well off the course long before winds kicked up and greens dried out for the afternoon wave.
If there's a reason for McIlroy's recent success, it's attention to detail. When he's in cruise mode like Thursday, it can appear that everything comes easy to McIlroy.
"It never feels easy," he said. "There's just little parts of the round that it sort of shows you where you're at with everything and mentally, physically. And I came through all those little tests today unscathed, and I'm really proud of that. So it might have looked easy, but there's certain parts of the round that are challenging."
McIlroy has had a lot to bear the last few months — the weight of expectation, the burden of being the spokesman for traditional golf in the face of the LIV incursion — but so far, he's borne up well under the weight. He's one step closer to the Claret Jug; the next test will be keeping himself in contention until Sunday afternoon. So far, he's handled the firm and fast conditions just fine.
"It's the fiddliest Open that I've played. It's the only way I can really describe it. It's just really fiddly out there ... around the greens here and just all the slopes and undulations and everything," he said. "I think as the tournament progresses, you're going to get some funny bounces and it's going to test your patience at times. And fiddly hasn't really been my forte over the years, but I'm hopefully going to make it my forte this week."
Contact Jay Busbee at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.