James Lawton: McIlroy shows a champion's nerve after nightmare start

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There may have been more than a touch of hysteria in the air when Rory McIlroy walked into the time slot, and some say the destiny, of Tiger Woods, but the new prodigy of golf knew that his first challenge was not to shoot the lights out of this venerable, moonscape establishment beside the English Channel.

With a hint that he maybe had at least a small feeling of a fighter who had just spent a little too much time on the tiles, McIlroy, who operated almost entirely in his own dimension at the US Open last month, acknowledged rapturous cheers and hoots from a vast gallery and then breathed in some considerable relief. It was that he was back in the ring and doing the thing that comes so much more naturally than riding the celebrity circuit which called to him so strongly after his stunning triumph at the Congressional Country Club.

The gallery became soundless and invisible as McIlroy fought, successfully, to overcome a nightmare start of two bogeys on the first three holes. When he came out of the wind and the crisis – having pulled back a shot and steadied his game to a place more or less where he wanted it on the eve of this 140th Open – he talked of his relief that he had both pulled off a piece of impressive damage control and returned, finally, to the right side of the ropes.

"Yeah, it was just great to get out there with with J.P. (his caddie Fitzgerald) and spend five hours inside the ropes and just go – that's where I'm most comfortable. That's me. I'm in my element when I'm inside the ropes, just playing."

Yesterday, though, there was little of the exhilaration that came when he ransacked the US Open field with golf of the most easy, dazzling technique. It was a day to produce the resolution of a proven champion rather than the game's most luminous shooting star in the absence of the crisis-ridden Tiger.

For the 22-year-old there was the old horror of shooting yourself out of the fight before it had truly begun.

"On a day like this," he said, "I know better than most people you can shoot a high number and put yourself out of the golf tournament. So it was nice to go out and shoot a decent score. I said yesterday that if the conditions stayed the same I'd take two 70s over the first two days and if I shoot 69 tomorrow with similar conditions I'll be really happy going into the weekend.

"I feel that if you can keep it around level par you're going to have a great chance."

The darkest of the drama came at the first tee when the decibels and the optimism were running higher than the gusting wind. "It could have gone badly wrong after that start," he said later. "I didn't hit the fairway on my first drive and it was going to be very difficult to stop it anywhere close to the pin.

"I struggled a bit with my speed all day on the greens and I hit that one about six or seven feet by and didn't make the one coming back."

It hardly helped that his American contemporary and playing partner, 22-year-old PGA tour rookie of the year Ricky Fowler, conjured a birdie from almost exactly the same spot at the back of the green.

Denied such sweet encouragement, McIlroy was simply required to test out the gift of resilience that may come with your first major.

When McIlroy dropped another shot on the third, some no doubt feared he might be entering the fringes of an Augusta experience. McIlroy insisted he was not among them. "No, I was pleased with my patience."

If the accumulated cheers still echoed in his ears, they were faint enough as he retreated to the practice range. "The cheers are great to hear of course," he says, "but after a while you turn them off."

What he needed to do most vitally yesterday was keep his nerve and he did it well enough to declare a good day's work in all the circumstances. The swing through celebrity land was fun while at lasted, he said, and so were the nights which produced an estimated four hangovers, but in the end he was both pleased and relieved to step back inside the ropes.

Most importantly of all, you have to answer the sound of the bell. McIlroy said, reasonably enough, that he would sleep well. He had, after all, stayed in the fight at a time of maximum pressure. He had done the least of what champions have to do.