McIlroy Leads British Open With Woods Three Shots Behind

Rory McIlroy holds a one-stroke lead after a first-round 66 at golf’s British Open, where the two-time major champion will try to avoid the second-round slumps that have plagued his season.

McIlroy opened with six birdies and no bogeys yesterday at Royal Liverpool in Hoylake, northwest England, his best British Open start since a record-tying round of 63 at St. Andrews in 2010. Italy’s Matteo Manassero is 5 under par, while 14-time major champion Tiger Woods, world No. 1 Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia are among 17 players within three shots of the lead.

McIlroy has a first-round scoring average of 68.2 in 13 stroke-play events on the U.S. and European tours this season and has averaged 72.2 in second-round play. A week ago, the 25-year-old Northern Irishman fired a 64 to start the Scottish Open, only to follow it up with a second-round 78.

“When you go back out on Friday after a good score, you know what you can do on the golf course,” said McIlroy, who is ranked No. 1 on the U.S. PGA Tour in first-round scoring average and 181st for the second round. “So you’re going out with some expectations.”

McIlroy said he has fewer expectations entering the first round of a tournament, when he’s just trying to find a rhythm. Yesterday, he took advantage of sunny conditions, light wind and a course that was much greener than the last time Hoylake hosted the British Open in 2006 with firm and fast conditions.

“We had perfect scoring conditions out there,” said McIlroy, who won the 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA Championship. “There were plenty of opportunities to make birdies and I was able to take a few of them.”

Early Lead

Since 1975, only five first-round leaders have gone on to win the British Open, the last being Woods in 2005. The others were John Daly (1995), Greg Norman (1993), Seve Ballesteros (1988) and Tom Watson (1980). McIlroy tied for third in 2010, following up his 63 with a second-round 80.

Italian brothers Edoardo and Francesco Molinari are among seven players tied at 4 under. Also two strokes back are Australia’s Scott, Spain’s Garcia, who is playing in his 61st straight major, Americans Brooks Koepka and Jim Furyk, and Ireland’s Shane Lowry.

Woods, Rickie Fowler, Jimmy Walker and Hideki Matsuyama are among nine players tied at 3 under, while another 14 players are 2 under after opening with rounds of 70.

“The field is very bunched,” said Scott, who lost a four-stroke lead with four holes to play at the 2012 Open. “The weather is going to separate that a bit, I imagine.”

After sunny weather on day one, the forecast calls for rain the next two days at Royal Liverpool.

Defending Champ

Defending champion Phil Mickelson opened with a 2-over 74, though he said afterward it was as well as he’s struck the ball in more than a year. He had two birdies and four bogeys, including three over the final six holes, and needed 32 putts, more than two over the average for the rest of the field.

“We had a little bit tougher conditions this afternoon, so I’m quite a bit off the lead, but the way I’m playing there’s a good round out there,” Mickelson said. “I did this at Troon in 2004, shooting a first-round 73 and then came back the next day and shot 66.”

Tom Watson, a five-time British Open winner making his 37th appearance at age 64, shot a 73 yesterday.

Woods, 38, making his first appearance in a major in 11 months, had five birdies in a six-hole stretch on the back nine after bogeys on the first and second holes.

Rough Start

“Boy, that was a rough start,” said Woods, who missed the Masters Tournament and the U.S. Open while recovering from surgery on a pinched nerve. “I just tried to stay patient. When you’re off for four months, that can be tough and compound that with surgery, it’s difficult.”

U.S. Open champion Martin Kaymer of Germany opened with a 73, while Henrik Stenson of Sweden, who is second to Scott in the Official World Golf Ranking, shot an even-par 72. Two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson opened with a 76.

England’s Justin Rose, who entered the tournament tied with Scott as the 12-1 co-favorite at U.K. bookmaker William Hill Plc after last week’s two-stroke win at the Scottish Open, started with an even-par 72.

Ernie Els, who took advantage of Scott’s collapse to win the 2012 British Open, struggled to a 7-over 79 that included a three-putt from about eight inches for a triple bogey on the first hole. Els, 44, said he was shaken up after bloodying a spectator’s face with an errant drive off the first tee.

“You think the worst,” Els said. “I was quite rattled. I was kind of finished and then started missing short putts. It was a nightmare I’d like to put behind me.”

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