The British Open is the most unique major championship of the year, and for many, the most enjoyable. The first two days are some of the longest days in golf, with the sun staying up in the UK until almost 10 p.m. local time and a tee sheet where everyone rolls off the first tee over 10 hours.
The weather was perfect at Hoylake on Thursday morning, setting up ideal scoring conditions for the first half of the field on the tee sheet. The sun was shining and there was almost no wind, while the greens were rolling around 10.5 on the stimpmeter. The greens are also generally flat for an British links course, allowing for bombed in putts from moderate to lengthy distances. Royal Liverpool is considered one of the easier courses on the Open rota, especially if there's no wind or rain and the AM scores reflected that. If it stays this calm, the winning number should push 20-under.
The Open is one of those rare events where the luck of the draw on the tee sheet can so often mean the difference between contention and going home early. The weather didn't really turn for the afternoon wave, but the scoring conditions were definitely tougher. Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson, Martin Kaymer, Justin Rose, and Adam Scott were some of the bigger names out in the afternoon, and only Scott managed to post a solid number. Here are some of the best and worsts from an extremely long day at Royal Liverpool.
There are several candidates for this honor, but Rory McIlroy is the clear choice. The conditions were perfect for his high-ball hitting ways. There was no wind and the greens weren't exactly concrete (reportedly around 10.5 on the stimpmeter). McIlroy has been playing some of the best golf in the world all year -- it's nothing like the disaster of 2013. He's just been unable to string together four full rounds for a win, except at Wentworth, the Euro Tour's marquee event.
Thursday's opening round was the full McIlroy. He got aggressive and ripped it off the tee, averaging 340.5 yards (as opposed to Tiger, who didn't hit a ton of drivers, at 278 yards). That aggressiveness resulted in some missed fairways, but McIlroy avoided the big trouble and kept striping his irons right into the flagstick. We knew he was going to put on a show by the second hole, when he stuffed it right up against the cup for a near eagle.
Now comes the hard part for Rory, who will go out later in the day on Friday trying to avoid the peculiar second round implosions that have plagued him all year. His first-round scoring average of 68 is tops on the PGA Tour, while his second round average of 73 is 181st. That doesn't even count this most recent fallback in Scotland last week, when he went 64-78 through the first two rounds. Whatever you're doing on Thursday nights, Rory, switch it up at Hoylake.
There were several nominees here as well. There was the 90 shot by Bryden MacPherson, which featured a 49 (!) on the back nine.
dat back nine (Bryden MacPherson) pic.twitter.com/cm5a2bwABD— Brendan Porath (@BrendanPorath) July 17, 2014
But I'll opt to go with one of the big guns from the marquee afternoon group, and take Ernie Els over the emotionally unsteady Bubba Watson.
Els shot a 79, but he had a pretty good explanation for his substandard play. On his very first shot of the week, he bombed his drive left into the gallery and caught an elderly fan right in the jaw. When he got up to his ball, there was blood everywhere and Els was understandably rattled. He admitted that it followed him the entire round, and it was particularly apparent on the first green right after it happened. That's when Els just casually three-putted from about 2 feet, including a lackadaisical backhand stroke.
Els would never really recover from beaning that fan and the subsequent double bogey. He'd make just one birdie, on the easy 16th hole, and finish with a 79 on a day when scoring conditions were ideal. Bubba's round was petulant and ugly, but he rallied a bit to limit the damage to just 4-over.
It's got to be Rory's tone-setting iron into the second green that nearly went in for eagle (via @Adam Sarson).
When he is firing these kind of darts into pins, and there's no wind to inhibit his high ball flight, he's the toughest competitor in the field. It helped that this one came so early in the round and led to a tap-in birdie on just his second hole, one that Tiger Woods had just bogeyed.
It wasn't a particularly good day for two higher profile Georgia players. Bubba was whiny and over-par, and Russell Henley authored this ugliness in front of a national television audience. It's never ideal when you take a full swing and your ball doesn't advance.
That high fescue and heather can sometimes get tricky to play out of, but a pro has to do better than just totally whiffing underneath the ball. Henley finished just one shot better than Bubba, getting in the house with a 3-over 75 and this embarrassment in tow.
Best Vine or GIF
This slowed down vine of the moment a Tiger Woods drive bounced off a volunteer's face took this category early in the day.
This could have been so, so much worse for that marshal, who was relatively unfazed by the brush back and returned to looking around the fairway.
This is a toss-up between the game's top two stars, Tiger and Phil. Shortly after plunking the fan above, Woods had to hit his approach shot in a sea of cameras that forced him to back off the ball multiple times. Finally, he stopped mid-swing at the top and let out a loud "JESUS CHRIST!" to let these photographers know he'd had just about enough of their crap. Woods knows that's going to get picked up everywhere, so it had to be pretty bad and at the breaking point.
But still, I appreciated Phil's reaction to a wayward approach shot on his last hole of the day. It's a place where we've all been, muttering an "Oh shit" as soon as the ball leaves the club, followed by an exhortation at the ball to avoid the danger in its path.
Henrik Stenson is one of the top players in the world, currently ranked No. 2 and a trendy favorite to win this week. He's also one of the biggest hotheads in the game. He's smashed drivers during competitive rounds, destroyed some terrain at Augusta, and smashed a locker to pieces during last year's FedExCup. So it wasn't a huge surprise to see him do this on Thursday:
Fortunately for the Swede, that was his final hole of the day and he wouldn't need that club again. But it's such senseless destruction of beautiful Callaway property.
Earlier in the morning, like 3 a.m. darkness morning, I examined the origins and inspirations for a bizarre giant octopus hovering over the fourth green. Well the octopus made an appearance in what was my favorite image of the day. The subject is a distraught Sir Nick Faldo (via Andrew Redington/Getty Images).
The runner-up goes to the above extreme action shot of Rickie Fowler.
Back tomorrow for another full 14-hour day of golf. Get some rest.