If you were looking for early drama at the 2014 British Open, Thursday didn't disappoint. All you have to do is look at the top of the leaderboard to see that this is going to be an event to remember.
Rory McIlroy, who is no stranger to early-round success with a 64 at the Scottish Open last week, holds the lead heading into Friday. The 25-year-old fired a bogey-free six-under-par 66, reminding the world why he can be the best player at any given moment.
Tiger Woods, who is no longer the world's best player but flashes moments of brilliance, also had a memorable first round with a three-under-par 69. After missing the cut at the Quicken Loans National three weeks ago, expectations were muted for the 14-time Grand Slam winner.
Below is a full recap of those performances and other key storylines from Day 1 at the British Open, but first here's a look at the leaderboard.
Rory McIlroy Dazzles in Round 1
For most players, shooting a bogey-free 66 in the first round of the British Open would be a reason to celebrate. What better way to start the third Grand Slam event of the year?
If you are McIlroy, putting up low scores on Thursday hasn't been a problem in 2014. He's been under par in eight of nine PGA events this calendar year, including four times shooting 69 or lower.
The problem for McIlroy has come on Friday, which has seen him shoot over par five times, including 75 or higher three times. He's even said in the lead-up to this tournament, via Barry Svrluga of The Washington Post, that the second round has gotten into his head.
In fact, look at how different McIlroy's performance in the second rounds have been all year compared to the other three rounds, via Golf Central:
Rory McIlroy (-6) will look to put an end to his "Freaky Fridays" tomorrow at Royal Liverpool. (entering week) pic.twitter.com/oiR2LYGHp6— Golf Central (@GolfCentral) July 17, 2014
McIlroy was unsurprisingly positive after carding the 66, discussing some of his best shots with ESPN's Tom Rinaldi, via ESPN Golf's official Twitter:
You can tell from that first shot shown in the video, his second on No. 2, that McIlroy was going to have a good day. He put the ball right in front of the pin from 191 yards away.
Now if McIlroy can sustain this success on Friday, we could be looking at a runaway winner. He's done it before, winning the 2011 U.S. Open by eight strokes. The British Open has given him fits in recent years, missing the cut in 2013 after finishing tied for 60th in 2012, so this is a great change of pace right out of the gate.
Tiger Woods Bounces Back From Slow Start
You could feel the world cringing when Tiger started off his first round with back-to-back bogeys, but then the 38-year-old reminded us why he's still one of the best players in the history of golf.
Tiger hit six birdies over the final 14 holes with just one bogey mixed in to finish at three-under-par 69, just three shots behind McIlroy heading into Friday. While never lacking confidence, he almost felt the need to say after his round that this wasn't a surprise, via Bob Harig of ESPN.com:
I knew I could do it. That's why I was telling you guys it was so important for me to play at Congressional. The fact that I was able to recover every day, and the fact that I was stronger, more explosive the more days I played.
I'm only going to get better from that point. And I'm getting stronger, I'm getting faster, I'm getting more explosive. The ball is starting to travel again. And those are all positive things.
That's not just the usual Tiger hyperbole, either. You could see in the highlights, via ESPN Golf's Twitter, that his striking and, especially, putting gets more crisp after those first two holes:
Like McIlroy, Tiger's biggest challenge will be maintaining that level of consistency over the weekend. He's shot 73 and 75 in the second round of his last two events, though that is misleading because the 73 came in the event before back surgery and 75 came in his first event after back surgery.
As long as there are no flare-ups physically, Tiger has put himself in a great position to at least contend for the Claret Jug through Sunday.
Italians Have Surprisingly Strong Start
While everyone knows McIlroy and Tiger, the top of the leaderboard after Round 1 features three surprising names: Matteo Manassero, Edoardo Molinari and Francesco Molinari. All three players are from Italy, which has never produced a British Open winner.
What's the biggest story from Day 1 at the British Open?
Manassero is a 21-year-old with four wins on the European Tour; Molinari is a 33-year-old veteran whose best finish in a Grand Slam was tied for 11th at the 2011 Masters.
Manassero sits right behind McIlroy after carding a five-under-par 67 in which he racked up seven birdies and two bogeys. He has a long way to go before winning this event, but it's hardly a fluke after finishing fourth at last week's Scottish Open.
The Molinari brothers are part of a seven-way tie for third place at four-under par. Between the two, Francesco seems more likely to stay high on the leaderboard through the weekend. He finished ninth in last year's British Open and has finished in the top 25 five times in his Grand Slam history.
Despite their bond as brothers, there is a competitive rivalry that fuels both players. Francesco talked about it after the first round, via the Associated Press and FoxSports.com:
We don't like to lose to each other, we don't like to lose to anyone else. I saw the leaderboard, but it's a tough course so you have to focus on what you are doing rather than the others are doing, even if it's your brother.
No one will be surprised if all three of these players stumble as the weekend moves on. There's no track record for Manassero or the Molinari brothers, though the former is just 21 years old and could be on the verge of turning a corner based on his recent history.
There's still a lot of work to do; even Francesco noted in his comments how tough the course can be. But it's a nice confidence boost for Italy to see so many natives near the top of the first-round leaderboard.
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