The 2014 Open Championship has gotten off to an exciting start to say the least, leaving plenty to look forward to for Friday's second round.
Rory McIlroy holds sole possession of the lead after opening with a six-under 66 at Royal Liverpool Golf Club in Hoylake, England. That was good enough for a one-stroke lead over Italian prodigy Matteo Manassero, as McIlroy seeks to notch the third leg of the career Grand Slam.
Golf fans would tend to concur with this leaderboard assessment from The Washington Post's Barry Svrluga:
Tiger Woods, making his first major start of 2014, got hot on the back nine in the first round, posting a three-under 69 to stay within striking distance. Woods won the Open at Hoylake in 2006 and is off to an ideal start to repeat the feat.
Those are just some of the stars in prominent contention for the Claret Jug. Here is a look at the top storylines entering Day 2 and predictions for the players involved in them.
Will Rory McIlroy Overcome 2nd-Round Woes?
The free-flowing, carefree swing McIlroy possesses is a marvel to watch when he's firing on all cylinders. For whatever reason, he's tended to do that in the first round of tournaments as of late, and Thursday in Hoylake was no exception.
Granted, favorable scoring conditions allowed McIlroy to often hoist the ball high up in the air, setting up plenty of birdie opportunities. McIlroy's majestic driving helped set that up, though. The Northern Irishman cranked it an average of 340.5 yards, taking many of the fairway bunkers out of play.
All you need to know about McIlroy—a 15-1 favorite—and what to watch for Friday is encapsulated in this statistic from ESPN's John Buccigross:
If he can just get through the second round without too many blemishes, McIlroy figures to have a wonderful shot at winning his home major. At least he seems to be embracing the limelight:
A victory at the British Open would already cement his status as a Hall of Famer, in addition to reigniting debates as to how many McIlroy will get before his career is finished.
At the 2010 Open at St. Andrews, McIlroy followed a 63 to start with an 80. Chances are, he's learned something from that experience. Missing out on the subsequent PGA Championship playoff by a shot, then blowing a four-stroke, 54-hole lead at the 2011 Masters offered harsh lessons as well.
Now, McIlroy is a new player, still years away from his prime with an immense amount of knowledge under his belt. At this point, he has to utilize it in Hoylake, redeeming his recent second-round disappointments to take the 36-hole lead.
Prediction: McIlroy shoots two-under 70, leads by two strokes after Round 2.
Tiger Woods Comfortable, Dangerous At Familiar Hoylake
In contrast to the approach McIlroy took, Woods opted to lay further back in setting up his approach shots to the green. Other than two bogeys to start his round, the results were similarly effective. That was what worked for Woods in 2006, when he won by two strokes at 18 under par overall.
The PGA Tour's official Twitter page provided a glimpse at how proficient Woods was, suggesting the rust he showed in missing the cut at the Quicken Loans National was an aberration:
This pre-tournament testimony from former world No. 1 David Duval makes a lot more sense in retrospect, as per Golf Channel's Tim Rosaforte:
Fans ought to expect Woods to be in the hunt for major No. 15 come Sunday, if this holds up—and for his odds of 16-1 to drop considerably. Health issues have plagued him in recent years, and while he was still able to win regular tour events, he couldn't quite close the deal in major championships.
Woods now seems fully capable from both a physical and mental standpoint to get through 72 holes without immense pain. There were no signs during Thursday's round that he was favoring anything, and he got better as the day progressed, heating up for five birdies in a six-hole stretch on the back nine.
Through the impact zone, there appears to be no restrictions in the way Woods is attacking the golf ball. He was even able to pull off a reasonably good, 30-yard cut shot with his three wood on the par-five 16th hole.
The field had better watch out for Woods, because he looks to be finding his usual, dominant form at a course he's had championship success on in the past. However, with the stakes hiking up a bit Friday, look for Woods to lose a slight amount of ground.
Prediction: Woods shoots one-under 71, trails by four strokes after Round 2.
Can Adam Scott Get Over The Open Hump?
That question could be posed to a lot of players, but it pertains to Adam Scott—the No. 1 favorite at 12-1—more than anyone. He is the one atop the world rankings now, not Woods. A heartbreaking runner-up finish at the 2012 British Open was a valuable learning experience before Scott won his maiden major at the 2013 Masters.
Once again last year, Scott found himself in the hunt for the Claret Jug, only to stumble to third place down the stretch. Thursday's round of 68 was a step in the right direction, though, seeing Scott stripe the ball off the tee, averaging a whopping 323 yards per drive.
Justin Ray of Golf Channel further emphasized how much golf is left to be played, particularly in Scott's case:
Scott is playing as well from tee to green as anyone in the world. Any negative effects from the layoff he took between the U.S. Open and now should be cast aside, since Scott looks just as sharp as he has since ascending to the top of the world rankings.
Competition will be tough moving forward, though. Manassero is just 21, but he is already a four-time European Tour winner, seemingly on the cusp of bringing his A-game to majors.
Speaking of youngsters doing just that, Rickie Fowler is just three shots off McIlroy's pace. Fowler has top fives in the previous two majors, seeking to add to his modest one victory as a professional with a big breakthrough. Brooks Koepka and Hideki Matsuyama are others near the top to watch.
Then, there are a mix of veterans, such as perpetual Open contender Sergio Garcia (four-under), the ever-gritty Jim Furyk (four-under) and FedEx Cup points leader Jimmy Walker (three-under). The depth of this field is staggering, but even more impressive is how many are in striking distance after 18 holes.
McIlroy, Woods and Scott are perhaps the biggest names in the game who are doing well, with the exception of Phil Mickelson (two-over). They will nevertheless have to work hard to maintain position heading into the weekend in what should be one of the most thrilling Open Championships in recent memory.
Prediction: Scott shoots two-under 70, trails by two strokes after Round 2.