Rory McIlroy took advantage of a windless Hoylake on Thursday, posting a 6-under 66 to lead by one after the first round of the 2014 British Open.
Most links courses, Hoylake included, require wind to be present to provide a defense against the world's best players. When the wind doesn't blow, or blows lightly like it did Thursday, scoring tends to be low and that's exactly what we saw in the opening round. It was extremely easy in the morning, and if you look at the leaderboard, most of the players that are sitting at the top are the ones who got the early start and will now get the afternoon times for their second rounds on Friday.
Rory McIlroy: Curtis Strange said at the top of the broadcast that Rory's one of the few players in the world that can win a tournament like this with less than his best stuff, and he's right, but the performance Rory put on during his round Thursday was impressive. With the easier conditions, he was super aggressive with his approaches and didn't really hit any shots that caused any stress. The thought process with him is that he hits the ball too high to be really effective in links golf, but that didn't really matter Thursday with how the course played and he took advantage. The big story with him recently has been the abnormal second-round scoring, where he's actually five shots worse than his opening rounds since Augusta, which is something no one can seem to explain. A solid second round of even par or 1-under would do wonders for Rory this week.
Matteo Manassero: Since Manassero plays almost exclusively in Europe, he doesn't receive the same kind of praise as players like Jordan Spieth and Hideki Matsuyama, but at 21, he's won four times on the European Tour, including the BMW PGA at Wentworth, a flagship event. It's already his fourth Open, and the key for him is going to be his short game since he is not one of the longer hitters in the field. Hitting 15 of 18 greens, with a chip-in for birdie and 28 putts is pretty solid. The 5-under 67 is his best ever round in 37 tries at a major championship.
When Tiger Woods surprised everyone by announcing his return from back surgery a few weeks ago at Congressional, he clearly had his eyes on this tournament. He was always going to try and get some reps in before coming over to Hoylake, and even though he missed the cut at Congressional, everyone knows that his focus is always on the majors and, outside of some early stumbles, Tiger was solid Thursday. He opened with a pair of bogeys, but he played the final 14 holes in 5-under par, including a stretch of five birdies in six holes from 11 to 16 where he looked every bit as good as the player who won 14 major championships from 1997-2008.
He was knocking in putts or just missing, but it was his ball striking that was really impressive. From just about every distance, his approaches were landing pin high and even the ones that missed the green were never so far off that he was left with a difficult pitch or chip. The most surprising thing was that he was actually drawing the ball instead of cutting it, using it as his preferred shot shape for the first time in years. The cut was still there too though, which is scary for the field if he has both under control.
Perhaps most importantly though is that there was never any sign of back pain or distress. It's been a long time since Tiger has played this complete of a round, and at three shots back, he's in great shape to put pressure on the leaders Friday.