The Open 2019: JB Holmes hits the front on day of drama at Portrush

What a weird and wonderful first round at the 148th Open. One where the Masters champion barely broke 80, the favourite for the tournament fell a spectacular victim to a nation's expectation and the weather matched the ever-changing mood, with players starting holes in sunshine and finishing them with it tipping it down.
We saw the first 29 for a back nine in Open history from New Zealander Ryan Fox and, at the other end of the scale, a 14 from 2001 champion David Duval that came within a stroke of the worst score on a single hole this storied event has seen. It was that sort of day, one where scores could be made but woe betide anyone who strayed off line.
No Claret Jug for Tiger Woods
or Rory McIlroy
this year, therefore, who finished with horrific scores of 78 and 79 respectively. The current physical (Tiger) and mental (Rory) frailties of the two most charismatic players in the game were laid all too bare.
It is only the strong who thrive at Portrush, ball-strikers with the confidence to pull off the shots that require an intimidating quotient of accuracy. Players like the man of the majors these days, Brooks Koepka, the Spaniard fast becoming an adopted Irishman, Jon Rahm, and the renaissance man in green, Shane Lowry.
The man who has the first-round lead, though, is big-hitting American JB Holmes. 
On a day when rounds were taking an unacceptably long time of well over five hours, it seemed fitting that the man in front is arguably the slowest player in the game.
Holmes took advantage of the wind lessening in the evening shadows to shoot 66 and carve out a one-shot lead over Lowry, with Koepka and Rahm part of a group no fewer than a dozen strong who shot 68. 
The first round delivered an assortment of stories so wide-ranging in fortune they pulled at every emotion — and that was just the Irish golfers.
The locals waited 68 years for the event to return, then aged a lifetime in one round. On one side of the ledger, Darren Clarke delighted at the start and Lowry showed his wonderful feel for links golf. On the other, Graeme McDowell collapsed at the finish — and then there was Rory. Oh, Rory.
Cheered to the rafters on the first tee, he walked off the last with a double, triple and quadruple bogey on his card. The boy who once shot 61 here signed for a total, 14 years later, precisely one shot a hole worse.
That 61 was compiled in the North of Amateur, where the trophy board in the clubhouse shows the 2008 winner to have been one Shane Lowry. He also won the Irish Open while still an amateur, so perhaps it was not surprising that he did a good job of managing the expectation.
The 32-year-old, from Offaly, began the year in 74th place in the world with no exemptions for the majors, but he followed his first victory for four years in Abu Dhabi in January with some good performances, and now stands on the threshold of the top 30.
For a man who has finished 1-2-1-2 in the last four majors, it must needle Koepka that he has never mustered so much as a top-five finish in the Open. You could tell from the off that he is intent on doing something about that, in pursuit of his fifth major victory in his last 10 starts.
For anyone under the impression that Koepka is all muscle and brawn, this round was more about touch and savvy, as his Portrush caddie Rickie Elliott — a former Ulster Boys champion himself — relished making him feel right at home.
Having dismantled one great links a fortnight ago with weekend rounds of 64, 62 to win the Irish Open at Lahinch, Rahm seemed filled with the same intent when he covered the front nine in a blistering 31 shots. A couple of late bogeys annoyed him, but he should prove a factor this weekend as he bids to win for the third time in Ireland in as many years.
Even last year, Rahm wouldn't have had the patience for a test like this one, but his growing maturity is showing in his impressive run of form.
Also among the considerable crowd on 68 are English trio Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton, and veteran Lee Westwood, plus rising Scot, Bob MacIntyre.
Having been the centre of attention at the last two Opens, Fleetwood has relished going under the radar this time, as he put together a rare bogey-free round. 'I feel like I did a lot of solid things. It was fairly stress-free and keeping a bogey off my card on a course like this is really pleasing,' he said.
MacIntyre was so nervous playing with McIlroy for the first time at the Scottish Open last week that he was thinking of asking his caddie to tee up the ball. He duly missed the cut.
You'd never have recognised such a nervous creature here, on a memorable first appearance in the Open. 'Learning is all I've been trying to do all season,' he said. 'Last week I was thinking on the first tee, "Oh no, just move this thing forward". But I feel I'm doing a good job of learning.'
Westwood, more than twice his age at 46, has done all his learning, of course. The best player in the game never to win a major — it's too late for him to start now, isn't it? — but that doesn't mean he can't relish the time in these events that he has left.
The reception he got from the packed grandstand at the 18th and the look of appreciation on his face said it all.

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