The 2014 Open Championship got off to an outstanding start, with a multitude of young guns soaring to the top of the leaderboard at Royal Liverpool Golf Club, Hoylake. Chief among them was two-time major champion Rory McIlroy, who shot a six-under 66 to take a one-stroke lead.
McIlroy is just ahead of 21-year-old Italian phenom Matteo Manassero, a four-time winner on the European Tour who hasn't quite put it together enough to contend in a major. That could very well change this week in Merseyside, England.
A recent riser in American golf, Brooks Koepka, is just one shot further off the pace at four under. Koepka burst onto the scene at the U.S. Open, finishing tied for fourth, which went somewhat unnoticed in light of Martin Kaymer's runaway victory.
Below are some predictions as to how McIlroy, Manassero and Koepka will perform during Friday's second round. They will seek to hold off more seasoned veterans such as Tiger Woods, Adam Scott and Jim Furyk in their quest for the Claret Jug.
Note: Tournament statistics are courtesy of TheOpen.com.
Rory McIlroy (-6)
Averaging 340.5 yards off the tee isn't often the recipe for success in an Open Championship. Just don't tell that to McIlroy. The Northern Irishman took advantage of tame conditions to bomb his drives and set up gettable birdie opportunities.
From the start, it was pretty clear McIlroy was locked in:
McIlroy must avoid a meltdown in the second round, which has prevented him from further golf conquests this season—and at the 2010 Open Championship, where he opened with a 63 at St. Andrews then shot 80.
Golf Central highlighted the trials and tribulations McIlroy has endured:
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
Hoylake plays into McIlroy's favor even more, because if he gets off to a troublesome start as he's tended to on recent Fridays, the back nine has three par fives to make up shots on. Since McIlroy has the length to reach them in two shots, it should give him something to look forward to as Round 2 wears on.
James Corrigan of The Daily Telegraph alluded to how McIlroy's play around the greens was on point Thursday:
rory's shortgame has been outstanding today. as good as ive seen it. really sharp— James Corrigan (@jcorrigangolf) July 17, 2014
When he has been in the proper state of mind to play solid major golf over four complete rounds, McIlroy has produced some special results. Eight-stroke triumphs at the 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA Championship showcased McIlroy's explosive firepower.
A similar electricity shot through Wentworth at this year's BMW PGA Championship. McIlroy rallied from seven strokes down on the final day to claim the trophy. McIlroy is far past due to piece together a complete week, and if he doesn't get it done on the weekend, he will at least shake off the second-round demons on Friday to hold the 36-hole lead.
Day 2 Prediction: McIlroy shoots three-under 69, takes three-stroke lead.
Matteo Manassero (-5)
Speaking of the BMW PGA Championship, Manassero became the youngest to win that tournament in 2013. That was his fourth win in as many European Tour seasons, showing that the phenom has a knack for closing the deal.
The majors have not been kind to Manassero, though. He missed three cuts in 2013 before finishing tied 72nd at the PGA Championship. Then he wasn't in the field for the most recent U.S. Open after failing to make the weekend at the Masters.
It appears Manassero's game has finally come around—at a course where his modest length off the tee won't put him at such a significant disadvantage as it does at other venues. Manassero discussed how laying back, rather than carrying the bunkers with his driver, suited him well in Round 1:
A more conservative strategy may end up benefiting Manassero more than most, with conditions expected to toughen during the second round, per BBC.com.
Birdies on three of his last four holes on Thursday saw Manassero gather significant steam heading to the clubhouse, giving him a stellar 67.
Tuning up at the Scottish Open last week gave Manassero some confidence in his preparation for The Open Championship, per Golf Digest's Mike O'Malley:
Matteo Manassero, on playing the Scottish Open last week at Royal Aberdeen: "The best preparation you could have had."— Mike O'Malley (@GD_MikeO) July 17, 2014
A tie for fourth featured a final-round 65. Manassero actually went bogey-free over the course of his final 35 holes at Royal Aberdeen Golf Club, carding 10 birdies in that span (h/t EuropeanTour.com).
Manassero has everything but elite distance to be competitive in a major. Combine his links experience with his sensational short game, and he should remain in contention all the way to Sunday. Although he may not be the most glamorous choice, expect Manassero to grind out a solid round on Day 2.
Day 2 Prediction: Manassero shoots one-under 71.
Brooks Koepka (-4)
Which young star has the best chance to win the 2014 British Open?
Koepka boasts an incredible amount of power, averaging just two yards less per drive than McIlroy in the first round. He also hit 14 of 18 greens in regulation, maintaining solid form from his breakout U.S. Open result.
But early adversity beset Koepka early. After a birdie at the opening hole, he suffered a double-bogey at the par-four second. Then he followed it like a player who belongs in a major, rattling off three straight birdies on Nos. 4 through 6.
Part of the reason stateside fans may be less familiar with Koepka is because he opted to start his professional career overseas—and with great success, per PGA Tour Media:
Now the golf world is becoming well-acquainted with the 24-year-old, whose unique strategy to go global is already paying dividends. Koepka has accumulated more experience on links-style layouts than his contemporaries, and it's showing in Merseyside thus far.
With regard to Koepka's chances of besting both McIlroy and Manassero on Friday, though, the odds still seem stacked against him, despite his recent form. His adversaries have won more frequently and on bigger stages. That's not to say Koepka isn't in line for plenty of higher-profile wins in the years to come, but experience and superior talent tends to be rewarded at the British Open.
Manassero is younger, yet has been on the European Tour for longer than Koepka has, picking up a win every season. The resume McIlroy has amassed speaks for itself. Koepka should hang tough in the second round, but the weekend should reveal that he isn't quite ready to win a major.
Day 2 Prediction: Koepka shoots one-over 73.