Open favourite Rory McIlroy was battling to recover from a nightmare start to his bid to lift the Claret Jug on home soil after recording a quadruple bogey on the first hole at Royal Portrush.
Northern Ireland’s best hope for a home winner could hardly have begun in worse fashion after pulling his opening tee shot out of bounds on the 424-yard par four.
McIlroy’s wayward iron shot hit a female spectator and damaged a mobile phone in her pocket before ending up five feet outside the white posts which mark the internal out of bounds.
The four-time major winner, who set the course record of 61 at Portrush aged 16, then found the left rough with his second attempt and hacked his fourth shot into a bush from where he took a penalty drop, chipped to seven feet and two-putted for a demoralising eight.
The first five holes were playing downwind and offering plenty of birdie opportunities, but McIlroy could not take advantage of the par-five second and dropped another shot on the third after his tee shot ran through the green.
More trouble looked on the cards on the reachable par-four fifth hole after McIlroy carved his tee shot into heavy rough, but he was fortunate to find the ball and almost holed his birdie attempt after pitching to 30 feet.
McIlroy picked up his first birdie of the day on the par-five seventh and narrowly missed for another on the next, those two holes being created from the adjacent Valley Links to replace the original 17th and 18th which are being used to house the spectator village.
A birdie from 15 feet on the ninth took McIlroy to the turn in three over par and seven shots behind clubhouse leader Shane Lowry, the Irishman carding five birdies and a solitary bogey on the difficult 11th in an opening 67, the lowest opening round of his career in any major.
In stark contrast to McIlroy, his fellow Northern Irishman Darren Clarke had enjoyed a dream start as he hit the opening tee shot at 6.35am after enjoying a prolonged ovation as he strolled on to the first tee.
No stranger to coping with emotional tee shots after playing in the 2006 Ryder Cup shortly after the death of his first wife Heather, Clarke found the right-hand side of the fairway with his drive, hit his approach to 15 feet and promptly holed for a birdie.
The 2011 champion, who plays mainly on the Champions Tour since turning 50, also birdied the second and third to raise hopes of a fairytale result, but eventually had to settle for a level-par 71.
“It could not have been better, hitting the first tee shot and making birdie, wonderful,” Clarke said.
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Rory McIlroy felt like golf’s 10 million-dollar man once more as the US Open got under way at Pebble Beach on Thursday.
McIlroy secured an eight-figure bonus for claiming the overall FedEx Cup title in 2016 by winning two of the four play-off events, including the season-ending Tour Championship.
And the 30-year-old believes he is in similar free-flowing form ahead of the year’s third major championship after winning his second tournament of the season in the Canadian Open on Sunday.
“I think the last time I felt this free has to go back to maybe that run at the play-offs in 2016,” McIlroy said. “I felt really good. And then going into the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine, I felt like that was a real good stretch of golf that I played.”
History is against McIlroy claiming his first major title since 2014 however, with no player having ever followed a PGA Tour victory with another at the US Open.
The former world number one also acknowledges that he needs to get off to a fast start on the Monterey Peninsula to have a chance of following in the footsteps of fellow Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell, who won at Pebble Beach in 2010.
“I had a chat with Johnny Miller at the champions dinner and he said if you look at the history of major championships, that first round is so important,” added McIlroy, who started the 2011 US Open, 2012 US PGA, 2014 Open and 2014 US PGA with rounds of 65, 67, 66 and 66 respectively.
“I said I know. My first rounds at Augusta and Bethpage this year put me a little bit behind the eight ball and it’s hard to catch up, especially as major championships are played on the toughest courses and if you start to chase on those really tough courses, it’s hard to do that.”
McIlroy’s victory in Canada made him one of the favourites for the title alongside defending champion Brooks Koepka, two-time AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am winner Dustin Johnson and Masters champion Tiger Woods.
Koepka is looking to become only the second player in tournament history to win the US Open in three straight years, while Johnson is chasing redemption after blowing a three-shot lead with a closing 82 in 2010.
Woods, who won the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach by a record 15 shots, missed the cut in the US PGA at Bethpage but returned to action with a top-10 finish in the Memorial Tournament.
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Rory McIlroy shot a final round of 61 to win the RBC Canadian Open by seven shots.
The Northern Irishman was in sublime form on Sunday, blitzing the field to finish on 22 under par.
He broke the tournament record by five shots to claim his 16th career PGA Tour title.
McIlroy’s countryman Graeme McDowell secured his spot at the Open Championship in his home town of Portrush after finishing in a tie for eighth.
He needed to finish in the top 10 and drained his monster par putt at the 18th to do just that, finishing alongside Danny Willett and Henrik Stenson on 10 under par.
A birdie at the 18th would have given McIlroy a round of 59 but he bogeyed the last after finding a bunker on his approach to the green.
His win in Ontario is the perfect preparation for the US Open, the third major of the year, which begins on Thursday.
“I just got it going out of the gates. I said at the start of the day I wanted to be aggressive,” McIlroy told Sky Sports.
“I played with so much freedom over the weekend, more freedom than I’ve had for a while, which is exciting. To get a win going into next week is huge.”
McIlroy, who hit nine birdies, an eagle and two bogeys, finished ahead of Webb Simpson, who chipped in on the 18th to tie with Ireland’s Shane Lowry on 15 under par.