British Open back at Royal Portrush and puts on quite a show; J.B. Holmes leads

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 leaderboard 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.

Holmes drove the downwind 374-yard fifth hole to 12 feet for a two-putt birdie, and ended with a 5-iron into the wind to 15 feet for a final birdie and a 5-under-par 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 hadn’t imagined golf’s oldest championship returning to their tiny country.

McIlroy 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, matching his third-worst score in a major.

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.

The large group at 68 included Koepka, who has won three of the past 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 the final major in a tie for third after the first round.

Koepka’s caddie this week is Ricky Elliott, who 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. I figure out where the miss is and where I’m trying to put it, and then go from there.”

Jon Rahm, a two-time Irish Open winner at nearby Portstewart and in the south at Lahinch two weeks ago, joined Holmes and Webb Simpson as the only players to reach 5-under at any point during the day and finished with a 68.

Duval had hit his worst score in any tournament — 91 — mainly because of the par-5 seventh. He couldn’t find two of his tee shots, hit the wrong ball in the process and — with all the penalty shots — had a 14, the second-highest score in 159 years of the British Open.

“Just one of those God-awful nightmare scenarios that happened today,” Duval said, “and I happened to be on the end of it.”

Forty-one players broke par, and 15 of them were within three shots of the lead.

Clarke turned and applauded the grandstand that filled before his opening tee shot at 6:35 a.m., then shot 71. McDowell wiped a tear from his eye before he teed off, and shot 73.

Doug Ferguson is an Associated Press writer.

This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/sports/article/British-Open-back-at-Royal-Portrush-and-puts-on-14107313.php.

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