PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland – An emotional opening shot by Darren Clarke. A shocking one by Rory McIlroy.
Tiger Woods had his worst score to start a British Open. Brooks Koepka quickly got into contention again.
Emiliano Grillo made a 1. David Duval made a 14.
The Open returned to Royal Portrush after a 68-year absence and made up for lost time with an unusual amount of theater Thursday. When more than 15 hours of golf before a robust, sellout crowd finally ended, J.B. Holmes was atop the leader board at a major for the first time in 11 years.
Even that might have been fitting. The big hitter from a small town in Kentucky had his first taste of links golf at Royal Portrush during a college trip, and he recalled how the caddies kept giving him the wrong lines off the tee because they had never seen anyone hit it that far.
Holmes drove the downwind 374-yard fifth hole to 12 feet for a two-putt birdie, and he ended with a 5-iron into the wind to 15 feet for a final birdie and a 5-under 66.
“You just have to accept the conditions over here and not get too greedy,” Holmes said.
He had a one-shot lead over Shane Lowry of Ireland, who didn't have the level of expectations or the connection to Royal Portrush like McIlroy, Clarke or native son Graeme McDowell, all of whom grew up in Northern Ireland and never imagined golf's oldest championship returning to their tiny country.
“I feel like for me I can come here a little more under the radar than the other guys,” Lowry said.
That wasn't the case for McIlroy.
He was the betting favorite who as a 16-year-old stunned Irish golf with a 61 to set the course record at Royal Portrush in the North of Ireland Amateur. The throaty cheers went silent when his tee shot went left and out of bounds. He went into a bush and had to take a penalty to take it out, and he walked off the first green with a quadruple-bogey 8. McIlroy finished with a triple bogey for a 79.
“I'm going to go back and see my family, see my friends, and hopefully they don't think any less of me after a performance like that today,” McIlroy said. “And I'll dust myself off and come back out tomorrow and try to do better.”
Woods didn't seem quite as optimistic after a 78.
“You've got to be spot on. These guys are too good,” Woods said. “There are too many guys that are playing well and I'm just not one of them.”
The Dunluce Links held up beautifully in such lush conditions, and so did the reputation of Northern Ireland's ever-changing coastal weather. There was a blue sky and dark clouds, a strong breeze and a stiff wind, shadows and showers, all within an hour's time.
“I took on and put off my rain gear probably at least nine times in nine holes,” Matt Kuchar said.
The large group at 68 included Koepka, who has won three of the last six majors and looked very much capable of adding the third leg of the Grand Slam. Koepka was tied for the lead at one point until he made his lone bogey on the 17th hole. He has been runner-up twice and won the PGA Championship this year. He started out the final major in a tie for third after the first round.
As usual, Koepka keeps it simple, and it helps to have Ricky Elliott as his caddie. Elliott grew up at Portrush and knows the course as well as anyone.
“It's easy when he's just standing on the tee telling you to hit it in this spot and I just listen to him,” Koepka said. “I don't have to think much. I don't have to do anything.”
Duval had hit his worst score in any tournament – 91 – mainly from the jolt of a bad swing on a tough hole, compounded by an oversight.
“Just one of those God-awful nightmare scenarios that happened today,” Duval said.
At Royal Portrush Golf Club
Portrush, Northern Ireland
Par: 71; Yardage: 7,344
J.B. Holmes 34-32–66 (-5)
Shane Lowry 33-34–67 (-4)
Alex Noren 34-34–68 (-3)
Webb Simpson 34-34–68 (-3)
Sergio Garcia 35-33–68 (-3)
Dylan Frittelli 35-33–68 (-3)
Robert MacIntyre 33-35–68 (-3)
Kiradech Aphibarnrat 35-33–68 (-3)
Ryan Fox 39-29–68 (-3)
Tyrrell Hatton 35-33–68 (-3)
Tommy Fleetwood 34-34–68 (-3)
Brooks Koepka 34-34–68 (-3)
Lee Westwood 34-34–68 (-3)
Tony Finau 35-33–68 (-3)
Jon Rahm 31-37–68 (-3)
Stroke Average: 4.21
Note: Hometown and betting favorite Rory McIlroy hit his opening tee shot out of bounds on his way to a quadruple-bogey 8. McIlroy would also triple bogey the 18th hole to shoot 8-over 79.