Scottish Open first round: Rory McIlroy eyes glory after 'comfortable' 64 as Ben An leads way
On the eve of his warm up for next week’s Open return to Royal Liverpool, where he triumphed in 2014, the Northern Irishman had talked about being as “close as I’ve been” to a return to winning ways in the majors. In front of a big crowd on the East Lothian coast, where eight of the world’s top ten are in action this week, he backed that up by making an eagle and five birdies to open with a six-under-par 64 in the $9 million Rolex Series event.
“I’ve not had particularly great results around this course the last couple of times,” admitted McIlroy of being unimpressed with the test in soft and benign conditions when finished outside the top 30 in 2019 before missing the cut on his return two years later. Perhaps influenced by the fact he played in this event at Royal Aberdeen the week before getting his hands on the Claret Jug at Hoylake, McIlroy decided it seemed wise to give it go again and, on this occasion, the 34-year-old seems to have brought his A game.
On a classic links day when a westerly wind stayed consistent throughout and the sun its head out every now and again, McIlroy drove the ball well, controlled his golf ball and knocked in plenty of putts, including a 33-footer from just off the front edge for an eagle at the third - his 12th hole. “It was pretty comfortable, I wouldn’t say it was easy,” he said, smiling. “I got off to a great start, holed some really nice putts early on, and that sort of got my eye in a little bit. As I said yesterday, I feel I am coming in here playing really good golf and I’ve been producing good results and getting myself up in contention. I’m just really trying to do the same things and try to adapt to the different conditions we are going to face over the next couple of weeks.”
For a bit of fun, he’d hit a persimmon driver off one tee in his pro-am round on Wednesday. “Roll back the clubs, roll back the ball, roll back everything!” joked the world No 3. “I must say hitting a persimmon wood, you obviously can’t swing as hard at it as a 460cc because you need to hit it out of the middle of the clubface. And a persimmon wood looks about as big as a golf ball does! But a friend of mine John Morgan bought this persimmon wood company and he is trying to make something of it. It’s cool, it’s a throwback. We have got different tee boxes, so we can go forward a few if we want and play some old equipment. And every now and then it’s fun to do it.”
In last year’s 150th Open, McIlroy was on course to land a popular victory until his putter turned cold and Cameron Smith closed with a stunning 64 to claim the Claret Jug. McIlroy came close again in last month’s US Open in Los Angeles. “My mind is pretty much on this week,” he insisted as his next major mission looms. “I’ve got myself off to a great start. I’d love to win The Scottish Open, that’s a massive deal in its own right, and what that could give me going into the summer in terms of The Open Championship and FedEx Cup and Race to Dubai and all that. It’s an important week, so I’m focused on this week. But it’s great that by playing this week I should be getting a little more prepared again for links golf next week.”
Korean Ben An, who won the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth by six shots in 2015 but has mainly played on the PGA Tour since then, set the pace on Scotland’s Golf Coast with a 61, which equalled the course record set by American Cameron Tringale last year. “I feel like I'm back home,” said An, who finished second to Brooks Koepka in the Scottish Challenge in Aviemore in 2013 before stepping up to the DP World Tour. “This is the tour where I started my professional career. It's been great coming back and playing links golf. I prefer warm weather but, on a links course, I feel comfortable. It can get tricky hitting shots, but I think I did well today.”
An, who is one of the players bidding to secure a spot in the 151st Open, leads by two shots from American Davis Riley, who stormed to the turn in 29 on the Tom Doak-designed course then started for home with a seventh birdie of the round before closing with eight straight pars. Belgian Thomas Detry, who sits alongside McIlroy, lost in a play-off in 2021 before producing another strong effort here to tie for tenth 12 months ago. “It's my playground here. I always play well,” said Detry. “I just feel good out here. I have a lovely little cottage out here on the golf course. I'm staying here with my family and everybody is happy.” He was almost even happier on this occasion. “I was inches away from walking away with two cars today,” he said of the prize on offer to both the player and his caddie for a hole-in-one at the 17, “so looking forward to see the highlights of that shot.”
Other notable rounds included a 65 from Ryder Cup contender Yannik Paul, while world No 8 Max Homa signed for a 66, but it was a disappointing day for Shane Lowry as he marked a first appearance since 2016 with a 71.
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