x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Going gets tough for McIlroy but Northern Irishman digs deep

The US Open champion deals with first-day challenge at the British Open with grace.

Rory McIlroy was the favourite to win at the start of the day.
Rory McIlroy was the favourite to win at the start of the day.

SANDWICH, England // Less than a month after making the game look ludicrously easy at Congressional, Rory McIlroy showed he was prepared to roll up his sleeves and graft as he battled wind, rain and some wayward tee shots in a subdued start to his British Open campaign.

A one-over-par 71 raised only a few roars from the thousands who lined the undulating links to follow the fortunes of the newly-crowned US Open champion but while birdies proved elusive, the 22 year old's hopes of back-to-back major triumphs remained firmly intact.

After dazzling the field in Maryland to win by eight strokes with a record 16-under-par total, McIlroy occasionally had to play second fiddle to the American Rickie Fowler on the kind of day that can slap down youthful exuberance.

Fowler, 22, who many view as the natural rival to McIlroy over the coming years, played the more eye-catching golf for his level-par 70 while Ernie Els, the elder statesman of the group, showed all his experience to escape with a 72.

For most of the day Els, 41, the 2002 British Open champion, strolled ahead of his younger playing partners looking for all intents and purposes like a knowing uncle taking his chatty nephews out for a round at his local club.

The three-time major champion knows a thing or two about chiselling out competitive rounds of golf when not playing at your best and he would have been impressed with the calmness McIlroy showed as his A-game failed to fire.

McIlroy was happy to walk off with a 71 after bogeying two of the first three holes and managing just two birdies, at the eighth and 17th.

"I felt like especially after the start ... that playing the last 15 in one-under-par was a pretty good effort," he told reporters.

"It was a day where you just needed to grind out a score. Anywhere around even-par was a good start."

The Briton failed to control his approach at the downwind first and ended up taking three more shots from a hollow at the back of the green. Watched by the former world champion boxer Barry McGuigan, another of Northern Ireland's favourite sons, McIlroy got an unlucky bounce at the par-three third and left himself an awkward chip back which resulted in another dropped shot.

"McIlroy-mania" gave way to some pleading cries of "C'mon Rory" as he trudged off towards the fourth where he briefly looked in danger of another bogey before steadying himself to sink a difficult par putt.

A superb approach to the eighth set up McIlroy's first birdie and although he bogeyed the 13th and wasted the par-five 14th after finding an awkward lie in a greenside bunker, another birdie at the 17th left him feeling upbeat.

Most of all, he said it was great just to be back out on the golf course.

"Just to get out there with [caddie] JP [Fitzgerald] and spend five hours inside the ropes, that's where I'm most comfortable," McIlroy said.

McIlroy also had a word of praise for Fowler - a player he has known since they competed against each other in the Walker Cup amateur event.

"We're very comfortable playing alongside each other. He played nicely today," McIlroy said. "You can see that he really loves links golf."