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Will freaky Friday return to haunt McIlroy?

Matteo Manassero was right up there; so too were the flying Molinari brothers.

Rory McIlroy strides purposefully down the 14th fairway en route to an opening six-under-par 66 and the lead by one shot from the Italian Matteo Manassero. Picture: Reuters
Rory McIlroy strides purposefully down the 14th fairway en route to an opening six-under-par 66 and the lead by one shot from the Italian Matteo Manassero. Picture: Reuters

This was the biggest Italian move since Pavarotti made an assault on the all-you-can eat buffet. Ahead of them, though, a Northern Irishman was enjoying La Dolce Vita.

At sun-soaked Hoylake, Rory McIlroy had another taste of the good life. His shimmering six-under 66 propelled him to the head of the field on day one of the 143rd Open Championship as a jam-packed leaderboard jockeyed and jostled behind him.

Adam Scott, the world No.1, is in amongst it; so too is Sergio Garcia. Tiger Woods also bounded into the upper echelons with a roaring back nine.

The young guns, meanwhile, enjoyed their day under the warming glow of that big fiery orb in the sky. The last three Opens have been won by seasoned campaigners in their 40s. Maybe it's time for the 20-somethings to seize the Claret Jug.

"I'm sort of getting past the young guy stage," chuckled 25-year-old McIlroy as he finished a stroke clear of the 21-year-old Manassero. He's hardly a wizened veteran just yet but McIlroy knocked it round the venerable links of Royal Liverpool with the classy nonchalance of a wily old timer.

It was another triumphant Thursday for the two-time major winner. Now we wait to see if it will be another freaky Friday. McIlroy's baffling tribulations on the second day of a golf event are well documented yet unexplainable. Even the great Jack Nicklaus has asked "how the hell you can shoot 63 then 78?" That happened at the Memorial earlier this season. Last week, he followed up a 64 in the first round of the Scottish Open with a 78. Even as far back as the 2010 Open, when he romped to a 63 over a benign Old Course before ballooning to an 80 in a gale the next day, McIlroy's Jekyll & Hyde showings have left everybody scratching their heads in puzzlement like Stan Laurel sizing up an undulating 10-footer. In total this season, McIlroy is 55-under-par for his first rounds and 15-over for his second rounds.

"Hopefully it's just one of those things that I'll be able to turn round," he said after polishing his card with a six birdies, the highlight of which arrived on the second when he knocked a 6-iron to within inches of the hole. "That's the advantage sometimes of having a high ball flight when there's no wind and you're just able to bring it down like that and stop it," he noted as he mulled over a neatly assembled round.

With not a lot of wind for the morning starters, the opportunities to make gains were considerable. Those in the second half of the draw got it that bit more exacting. Bryden Macpherson, the former Amateur champion, trudged in with a gruesome 90. Ernie Els, the two-time Open champion, also endured a ghastly sight as he clattered a spectator with his opening drive.

"It was like a bullet coming at him, it was right in the face," said Els. "There was blood all over and I was quite rattled." He clearly was. On the first green he missed a tap-in, then dunted the next tap-in back past the hole before finally tapping in for a seven en route to a crippling 79.

There was something of a Caledonian connection on that early leaderboard as the sub-par rounds piled in. Edoardo Molinari, the former Scottish Open champion, eased in with a 68 - he was eventually joined on that mark by brother Francesco who eagled his last hole - while the upwardly mobile American Brooks Koepka, the winner of the Scottish Hydro Challenge in Aviemore last season, put himself in the major picture again after finishing fourth in June's US Open with a four-under card of his own. Even Aussie Marc Leishman, a past winner of the Tennant Cup at the Glasgow Club during his amateur days, flirted with the top for a spell with a 69.

You could stick a kilt on Manassero's fine 67 too. It has been a largely underwhelming season so far for the former BMW PGA champion but he seems to be finding form at the right time. Last week's fourth-place finish in the Scottish Open at Royal Aberdeen has certainly galvanised him ahead of this latest campaign.

"It was just the best preparation I could have had," said the young Italian, who finished 13th in the Open as an amateur at Turnberry in 2009 but has missed the cut in his last two appearances. "Up there, we had strong wind, we had very little wind, we had different directions of wind. And the course was firm. I just got myself in a very linksy frame of mind. I needed something to cheer me up before this Open . . . and that happened at Aberdeen."

He was immediately cheered yesterday when, having gouged his way out of the fairway bunker on the first, his 9-iron from 160 yards dribbled into the hole for a birdie.

Garcia, fifth the last time the Open was at Hoylake, conjured his own little bit of magic on the 11th, lifting a deft chip up from the left of the green onto the sloping surface before watching it roll into the hole as he moved into contention with a 68.

Scott's four-under card, played out in the much tougher conditions of the afternoon, was illuminated by an eagle on the fifth but Phil Mickelson's defence of the Claret Jug he won in rampaging style at Muirfield last July began with a two-over 74. A wild hook out of bounds on the last did not help. Lefty didn't get it right yesterday. McIlroy did, but will he get the heebie-jeebies again on freaky Friday?

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