A brash youth mugged a defenceless old lady here yesterday, but at least he left her with a shred of dignity. Rory McIlroy came within a three-foot putt of recording the first 62 in the 150-year history of the majors. Instead this remarkable 21-year-old had to be satisfied with a nine-under magnificence which gave him a two-shot lead in the first round of the Open Championship.
But satisfied the Ulsterman most certainly is after what he called, in that wonderfully blasé way of his, "a very pleasant round of golf". McIlroy became the 22nd – and yes, the youngest – player to shoot a 63 in a major and the first since Tiger Woods at the USPGA three years ago. But it was not the hows and the whys which truly made this yet another memorable day for British and Irish golf in this most memorable of seasons. It was the where.
McIlroy just happened to have posted the lowest opening round of any of the 139 Opens and done so at the Home of Golf. On a grey Thursday it doesn't get any better than that.
In truth, the revered links had been there for the taking. "The Old Course will never play any easier," said Stewart Cink as he cast his eye over a rain-softened layout which at that stage was devoid of even the barest breeze. The leader board backed up the defending champion with a shocking trail of red numbers. To some it seemed almost sacrilegious, but the most famous links on Planet Golf had been pulverised.
Later the winds and rain arrived to make this an uneven playing field for the afternoon starters. They were the losers in the links lottery, the poor souls who had to go out and play in conditions which transformed this birdie paradise into a demanding test. Credit to Lee Westwood for somehow knocking it around in a five-under 67 despite a calf injury. The world No 3 is still in it, but as for the world No 2? Phil Mickelson trudged in, soaked and despondent, with a 73. Unless the fates decide to balance it up today it will be yet another miserable Open for the left-hander.
Woods might derive a little pleasure from that, although his own challenge is far from a formality. On any other day, he would have expected to be in or very close to the lead with a 67. Instead he is not even in the top seven and trails by four. It was a reminiscent display by the shamed world No 1 and one that sets him up so ominously for a tilt at a historic third Claret Jug at St Andrews. But the fact is that Woods is behind. And that is a feeling he has not experienced for the last seven rounds he has played here.
On this form, in this mood, McIlroy will take some stopping from becoming the youngest Open champion in more than a century. "I feel I've got a great chance," he said. "I've said this so many times, but I've played so well here before." Indeed, his performances at St Andrews were positively Woods-like coming in. In eight rounds, McIlroy had not fared any worse than a 69. He had been 34 under and is now 43 under. "I love the place," he said. The place loves him.
Further proof is provided from a scorecard which makes incredible reading After eight holes he was one-under; 10 holes later he was nine-under. McIlroy was seemingly picking up shots with every stride. It began with an eagle two on the 352-yard par-four ninth. "Yeah, I hit a driver to 15 feet and then holed the putt straight up the hill," he said, making it sound like the most normal thing in the world. From there he birdied 11th, 12th, 14th, 15th and arrived on the green of the hardest of them all – the Road Hole – nestled just a few feet from the flag. His shot-of-the day, towering six-iron had suddenly made the magic number seem probable not possible.
"It went through my mind that the 62 would have been the lowest ever – and that's probably why I missed the putt," McIlroy said. "It's amazing. The only thing that came into my head was watching Tiger at the 2007 USPGA in Tulsa and he lipped out for 62."
As it was, McIlroy recovered his poise with a three up the par-four last, this time nervelessly holing the four-footer. "It sort of made up for 17 a little bit," he said. "It would have been lovely to shoot 62, but I can't really complain." That final birdie capped off "my most special round" but not "my best round". "To be honest," he said, "the 61 I shot around Portrush when I was 16 was probably slightly better."
That sums up McIlroy to a tee; the finest golfing prodigy since Woods rewrote what was and wasn't possible for young men in this old man's sport. As an amateur in the 2007 Open at Carnoustie, he was the only player in the field to avoid taking a bogey in the first round. Wild claims were made about him then; perhaps, looking back, they weren't so wild. A closing 62 to win his first American title at the Quail Hollow Championship two months ago installed him in the world's top 10 and indicated the talent was progressing apace. Here it has hit the turbo.
McIlroy stands three rounds from immortality, two clear of another good mate in Louis Oosthuizen. The 27-year-old South African actually threatened to join him before bogeying the 17th. Earlier John Daly had raised the cheers from a rather flat atmosphere which Justin Rose labelled "eerie" by sprinting through the first 10 holes in six-under. Like McIlroy, the 1995 St Andrews hero shot at everything, treating the Old Course with minimum respect for maximum reward. Like McIlroy, Daly bashed the Old Course to her heels.
Yet it wasn't all about the bombers. Playing with Daly, Andrew Coltart gave the Scottish some local interest with a 66, while also in this group are Wales' Bradley Dredge, the Swede Peter Hanson and an unknown Englishman in Steven Tiley. The Europeans are everywhere, the excitement builds. McIlroy is the talk of the Auld Grey Toon.
The 63 club
Rory McIlroy yesterday shot the 24th round of 63 in major championship history. It was the eighth in the Open, but the first for 17 years, and only the second nine-under round in the event's history. The other was by Paul Broadhurst, again at St Andrews, in 1990. Two players have achieved the feat twice – Greg Norman and Vijay Singh. At 21, McIlroy is the youngest member of the 63 Club.
Nick Price 1986; Greg Norman 1996.
Johnny Miller Oakmont 1973, Jack Nicklaus Baltusrol 1980, Tom Weiskopf Baltusrol 1980, Vijay Singh Olympica Fields 2003.
Mark Hayes Turnberry 1977, Isao Aoki Muirfield 1980, Greg Norman Turnberry 1986, Paul Broadhurst St Andrews 1990, Jodie Mudd Royal Birkdale 1991, Nick Faldo Royal St Georges 1993, Payne Stewart Royal St Georges 1993, Rory McIlroy St Andrews 2010.
Bruce Crampton Firestone 1975, Raymond Floyd Southern Hills 1982, Gary Player Shoal Creek 1984, Vijay Singh Inverness 1993, Michael Bradley Riviera 1995, Brad Faxon Riviera 1995, Jose Maria Olazabal Valhalla 2000, Mark O'Meara Atlanta 2001, Thomas Bjorn Baltusrol 2005, Tiger Woods Southern Hills 2007.