ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -
The precocious lad who has never taken more than 69 strokes to complete a round of golf at the Old Course was asked if he could remember all his scores.
"Yeah, 69, 69, 67, 68, 67, 68, 65, 69, 63," Rory McIlroy said, rattling them off as if reciting the alphabet.
Oh, and about that last number . . . it's the reason he was sitting in the interview room Thursday while most of the field was still out on the course or yet to begin the first round of the British Open.
He turned 21 two months ago, this compact boy from Holywood, Northern Ireland who moves down fairways with an easy, rolling gait that looks as though he's out for a stroll in the park - and Thursday, that's about how elementary he made it appear, firing a no-muss, no-fuss, 9-under-par 63 to tie the lowest score ever shot in a major championship.
At St. Andrews. In the British Open. At 21.
And he lipped out a four-footer for birdie at the course's hardest hole, the 17th, or he'd have shot 62.
"It sort of went through my mind at 17 . . .," McIlroy said of the record. "That's probably why I missed the putt."
But it was about his only lapse in a round that kick-started with an eagle 2 at the 352-yard, par-four 9th hole - he drove the green and holed the putt from 15 feet - and just kept rolling. He promptly birdied the 10th, 11th and 12th, then the 14th, 15th and 18th for a back-nine 30 that staked him to a two-stroke lead over South African Louis Oosthuizen.
A dead-calm morning after overnight rain left the Old Course as defenceless as can be, and the early players had their way with it before a breeze kicked up in the late afternoon - with intermittent downpours of rain.
In the first half of the field alone, 46 players recorded sub-par rounds and were an aggregate 151-under.
"We really had to take advantage of the conditions. The course was there to be taken apart," said McIlroy.
It played so easy, David Duval was only five over par.
The biggest shooter of all, Long John Daly, had the stage early, getting it to seven-under by the time he'd played 11 holes and kindling memories of his Open win here in 1995, but he backed off with a bogey at the 17th and ended tied for third after a 66.
"The way I hit my driver today, I had so many opportunities. I could fly a lot of those bunkers and had a lot of wedges in there," said Daly, who had at least four putts touch the hole and stay out on the back nine alone. "I hit some good putts that I thought were in and just trickled away."
Of course, the first-round leaderboard at any British Open is apt to be a potpourri, to put it gently, dotted with mongrels and suspects. So the idea of the highly flammable Daly sharing third with Scotland's Andrew Coltart, who has scarcely been heard of in eight years, and Englishman Steven Tiley, with others like Siem, Swedes Fredrik Andersson Hed and Peter Hanson, Welshman Bradley Dredge and Spain's Alejandro Canizares (winner of the 2009 Russian Open) also in the chase made perfect sense.
But the gifted McIlroy is no passing fancy, Daly has always had the talent and know-how to play this course - and with Tiger Woods, the two-time defending champion of Opens at St. Andrews, lurking at 67 with Lee Westwood, Y.E. Yang, Glover, Sean O'Hair and Nick Watney, there is plenty of credibility in the pursuit pack.
"It felt awkward because there was absolutely no wind, and you never play a links golf course with no wind. You just had to go get it," said Woods. "At the time I was playing 17 and 18, you had to be 5 under par to be in the top 10. You don't see that at too many majors."
The world No. 1, bedecked in a fuchsia shirt, may have finally found a colour that didn't look good on him, but Daly found about 15 of them, between his aqua cap, pink shirt, pale blue sweater-vest and multi-coloured Paisley pants.
"These are kind of like my good luck start pants," Daly said. "The good thing about them is you can get dressed in the dark, and any shirt is going to match."
He was well on his way to being the story of the day until the sub-par numbers started mounting and he got passed by McIlroy.