J.B. Holmes grabbed a one-shot lead after the first round of the British Open on Thursday while local favorite Rory McIlroy struggled at Royal Portrush Golf Club in the tournament’s return to Northern Ireland after a 68-year wait.
Holmes shot a 5-under-par 66, leaving him one stroke ahead of another local favorite, Ireland’s Shane Lowry, on a day when Phil Mickelson posted a 76 and Tiger Woods limped home with a 78. McIlroy, who shot a course-record 61 as a 16-year-old amateur at Royal Portrush in 2005, tumbled to a 79.
Holmes, a 37-year-old who has never won a major tournament, started his round with his only bogey at the par-4 first hole before delivering three birdies in the next four holes. He added birdies at Nos. 12, 14 and 18.
“Every time you come over here, it’s a unique experience,” said Holmes, who has won once this year at the Genesis Open in Pacific Palisades, Calif. “You get the wind, the rain, and you play the ball on the ground a little bit more. You’ve got to be very patient. It’s a march.”
A group of 13 sits two shots back at 3 under par, including world No. 1 Brooks Koepka, Tony Finau, Spain’s Sergio Garcia and England’s Tommy Fleetwood and Lee Westwood.
Koepka, who won the PGA Championship in May and finished second at the U.S. Open in June, has won four major titles. His best finish at the British Open was a tie for sixth in 2017. He finished tied for 39th last year at Carnoustie in Scotland, and he is looking to improve on that result by using a local caddie in this year’s tournament.
“It’s been relatively easy,” Koepka said of his transition to the course. “He just tells me where to hit it, and I go from there. It’s been fun. I’ve enjoyed it. It’s fun to be in his hometown. Never being here, it’s a special place.”
One player who knows the course well is Northern Ireland’s McIlroy, but the knowledge has not seemed to help. He opened with a quadruple-bogey 8 on No. 1, tied for his highest score on a hole at any PGA Tour event.
McIlroy also made a double bogey at No. 16 and a triple bogey at No. 18.
“It was obviously a disappointing day,” said McIlroy, who tied his highest ever first round at the British Open. “I didn’t put it in the fairway enough to play.”
Mickelson, whose 2013 victory at the British Open was the last of his five major titles, had three bogeys on the front nine and four more on the back nine.
Woods, a three-time winner at the British Open, had six bogeys plus a double bogey at the par-3 sixth hole.
“I’m not moving as well as I’d like,” Woods said. “Certain shots I just can’t hit. Father time, the procedures I’ve had ... just the way it’s going to be from here on out. It’s why I’m not playing as often anymore on the PGA Tour.”
Lowry’s 67 was his lowest score in a major tournament. He made the turn at 3 under before recording a birdie at the par-4 10th hole, a bogey at the par-4 11th and another birdie at the par-5 12th.
New Zealand’s Ryan Fox, who is in the group at 3 under par, shot a 6-under-par 29 on the back nine, the 15th score of 29 or better in the history of the British Open and the lowest score ever on the back nine. All six of the birdies came on his final seven holes.