CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — Carnoustie was docile Thursday for the first round of The Open, affording plenty of birdie chances (well, except for No. 16). But rain and wind are expected Friday.
Rory McIlroy doesn’t need fairways
Rory McIlroy hit all over Carnoustie on Thursday, finding just 4 of 15 fairways to put him 142nd out of 156 players. Normally, that would lead to trouble, an over-par score and a lot of work to do to get in contention. Instead, he worked his way to a 2-under 69, putting him within three of first-round leader Kevin Kisner.
“You know, it wasn’t pretty off the tee, but I got it done, and I took advantage of some unfortunate bounces,” he said. “I would have taken 69 to start the day.”
Don’t be surprised if McIlroy’s driving statistics look the same Friday and over the weekend. Before the event began, McIlroy said it wouldn’t make a huge difference if he didn’t hit fairways given that the lack of rain in Scotland had taken the teeth out of the rough at Carnoustie.
“Yeah, didn’t see the fairway much, but as I said at the start of the week, it’s very playable from not in the fairway,” he said. “So, obviously, I got away with some tee shots, but at the same time I think that’s what I have to do. That’s my game plan this week. I’m convinced that that’s the way that I should play it. … Hopefully I hit a few more fairways, but I’ll adopt the same strategy.”
Whatever the strategy, McIlroy needs it to work again Friday. Only once has he begun The Open with under-par rounds. It happened in 2014 at Royal Liverpool. Things worked out well that year. He won.
The Americans’ major quest
American players have won the past five majors. But the run of U.S. players at the top of major-championship leaderboards is even more pronounced than that. Consider this: Since Sergio Garcia won the 2017 Masters, there have been 20 total rounds played in majors and an American has either been in the lead or tied for the lead in every single one. Kisner made sure that streak rolled on with his opening-round 66 on Thursday at Carnoustie.
“I spent a lot of time with [defending Open champion] Jordan [Spieth] and the Claret Jug,” Kisner said. “I flew home with him after he won. And then over to Paris with him. And I’m staying with him this week and he no longer has it. He gave it back on Monday. It would be cool to return the favor and let him look at it a little bit.”
In all, there are 16 American players among the first 26 names on the leaderboard.
Kevin Kisner and what comes next
That Kisner has the lead is a good-news, bad-news situation as he heads into the rest of the 147th Open. Kisner has never gone wire-to-wire to win a tournament. Three times he’s had at least a piece of the lead after the first day. Kisner didn’t win any, but he did finish in the top 10 twice. It happened most recently at last year’s PGA Championship, when he had at least a share of the lead after each of the first three rounds.
“The PGA, I only hit one bad shot coming down the stretch,” said Kisner, who closed with 3-over 74 as Justin Thomas won at Quail Hollow. “I kind of got out of the lead and fought back to get back to the lead and hit a poor second shot on 16.”
Kisner has posted an under-par score in the first round in each of his three Open appearances. He’s followed each with an over-par second round. So that’s the bad news as he tries to chase down his first major. There is some good news: The winners of the past four Opens have been no worse than second after the first round.
If his putter stays as hot as it did Thursday — he needed just 22 — then the Claret Jug could be his come Sunday night in Scotland.
“I came here Monday and worked really hard on my speed, which is always the hardest thing for us to get accustomed to here,” he said. “I felt like the greens were not as slow as we’ve had in the past because the wind hadn’t been up yet. The transition wasn’t as big a deal. And the ball started coming off on the line, and when I’m doing that, I feel like I can hole them all.”
Be careful at No. 16
The closing stretch at Carnoustie is not easy — at all. Everyone knows about what can happen at the 18th. Please don’t make us invoke the name Jean van de Velde again. The 17th ranked as the third-hardest hole on the course. The 18th was the fourth. But the par-3 16th did the most serious damage as the most difficult at Carnoustie. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the hole was the hardest of any par 3 at a major championship in the past 35 years.
“It was massive,” said McIlroy, who snuck away with par at 16. “Tough hole today. I’d be surprised if over 30 percent of the field hit that green.”
He wasn’t far off. Only 59 of the 156 players hit the green at the 16th, good for just 38 percent.
So don’t mess with No 16.
When the key players hit the course
DJ’s road to the weekend
World No. 1 Dustin Johnson made a mess of the 18th hole Thursday, posting a triple-bogey to end with his worst round in more than a year. His 5-over 76 has him 10 shots behind Kisner, meaning he will have some work to do during Friday’s second round to avoid missing the cut. His record for finding his game in one day is not good. In the seven previous times he’s shot 75 or worse on the first day, he’s missed the cut six times.
He’ll have work to do. He heads into Friday’s round tied for 129th.