Quite an opening day at the British Open
From the depths of memory came lumbering John Daly, 44 now and no longer lumbering. His greatest moment in golf was 50 pounds ago and the 1995 British Open, which he won at this same St. Andrews seaside shrine to the game. His second-greatest moment, with apologies to his 1991 PGA title, might well be the six-under-par 66 he shot here Thursday.
A few groups behind him strode the future, a 21-year-old from Northern Ireland named Rory McIlroy, who did Daly three better with a 63 and mused later that he had given some thought near the end to a 62, knowing that the best British Open round ever, anywhere—and, for that matter, any major championship round—is 63. Equaling the greats of 150 years apparently was less than completely satisfying for the leader of golf’s tomorrow.
Then there was Tiger Woods, at 34 the game’s No. 1 player, its present standard-bearer. Daly and McIlroy set their sights on tomorrow. Woods sets his on Jack Nicklaus’ major records.
Yet on a day that somehow remained nearly windless along a stretch of ocean that almost never quits exhaling and was wet enough to make greens and fairways soft, Woods shot a nice 67 and got upstaged.
It wasn’t so much that everyone failed to recognize how well Woods had positioned himself for the next three days, nor how forgiving and playable this unforgiving and unplayable course was. It was, simply put, that the Daly and McIlroy stories were a fresh change from sole focus on Woods’ stone-face march toward redemption. All his body language, all his news conferences seem to point to the same thing: Win a major and all will be forgiven.
But in the interim, there was a man walking these sacred fairways in his pajamas, and proving there is no need for a dress code at St. Andrews. Daly was in a pink shirt, baby blue sweater vest, and pants that appeared to be modern art gone bad. He called the pants his “Paiseltine.” He has been wearing combinations of these for months, in sort of an attempt to call attention to himself, because his game no longer did.
“The good thing about them,” Daly said of his pants, “is you can get dressed in the dark, and any shirt is going to match.”
He has had the lap-band procedure to control his weight, and said he weighs “between 190 and 195 pounds,” that he can no longer drink beer because it won’t stay down and that he especially misses vitamin D milk.
“I used to drink half a gallon a day,” he said of milk. “When you used to be as hung over as I used to be, it was great. Got rid of everything.”
Clearly, when you have been through four wives, several bouts with alcohol and weight, and even some problems with people who collect taxes, a calm day at your favorite golf course and a great opening round of 66 means everything. Asked if the oft-used description of him as the “Wild Thing” should be changed, Daly pondered and said, “Mild thing?”
Daly now finds peace and stability in girlfriend Anna Cladakis, who followed him Thursday in a skirt that matched his pants, and in his friends and adopted family at Red Hill Country Club in Rancho Cucamonga, where he said he goes often as a haven. Some country clubs have their own traveling pro. Red Hill has its recovering pro.
McIlroy is recognizable not by his pants, but by thick, black, curly hair flowing from under his cap. He is also recognizable as a prodigy, a status probably beginning with the day he shot a round of 61 at a difficult course in Northern Ireland named Royal Portrush. He was 16 then.
Many picked him to win this event because, much like Daly, he plays the course by merely hitting drives over all those dreadful pot bunkers positioned to swallow up shots of the shorter hitters, those who can hit it only a measly 320 yards.
McIlroy said his run began with an eagle at No. 9. That’s a par four of 352 yards.
“I hit driver off the tee to 15 feet,” he said, casually, “and holed the putt straight up the hill.”
That had the air of Daly’s description of his second shot on the No. 17 Road Hole, which flew over the 495-yard par four: “… Had 171 and tried to chip a seven-iron.”
McIlroy was asked to describe his previous rounds at St. Andrews, six as an amateur and two as a pro, before Thursday’s 63. He paused, then reported, “69, 69, 67, 68, 67, 68, 65, 69.” To his credit, he added, “I’ve never played St. Andrews when the weather has been that bad.”
Woods, who has played in all sorts of bad weather here, did a couple of TV interviews after his round and drifted away, as is his option. No need to face the same questions in the same big room.
Besides, on this day, Daly and McIlroy had the better answers.
Steve Stricker followed up his second straight John Deere Classic championship with a 1-under 35-36—71, but that left the Edgerton native eight strokes off the pace in a tie for 59th place. His round included 16 pars, two birdies and one bogey.