published Thursday, July 14th, 2011

McIlroy off to sluggish start at British Open

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    South Africa's Ernie Els watches as Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy hits a shot off the 1st tee during the first day of the British Open Golf Championship at Royal St George's golf course Sandwich, England, Thursday, July 14, 2011. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

SANDWICH, England — Rory McIlroy wants to keep it going.

Thomas Bjorn would prefer to forget.

Coming off a dominating performance at Congressional, McIlroy started sluggishly at the British Open on Thursday in his bid for two straight major titles. He struggled to keep it straight off the tee and made bogeys on the two of the first three holes.

With the U.S. Open champion trying to get on track, Bjorn claimed the early lead. The Dane was at 5 under through 15 holes, even with the breeze strengthening off the Strait of Dover. His score would've been even better if not for a 2-foot miss at No. 9.

Bjorn only got into the tournament Monday as an alternate, giving him a chance to erase the memories of his hideous finish in the last Open held at Royal St. George's.

Eight years ago, Bjorn threw away a two-stroke lead coming down the stretch, largely because he needed three strokes to escape a bunker at No. 16. Unheralded American Ben Curtis wound up claiming the claret jug in one of golf's biggest upsets.

Bjorn was two shots ahead of 2009 Open champion Stewart Cink.

Teeing off at midmorning, McIlroy drove his opening shot into the first cut of rough right of the fairway.

The 22-year-old from Northern Ireland knocked his approach through the green, putted about 6 feet past the cup and missed the return putt to take bogey.

Playing partner Rickie Fowler, on the other hand, sank about a 100-footer from nearly the same spot behind the green for an improbable birdie.

McIlroy dropped to 2 over with another bogey at the third, and he missed a good birdie chance at the par-5 seventh.

McIlroy blew away the field at Congressional, winning by eight strokes with a record 16-under score for his first major title. With Tiger Woods missing his second straight major because of an ailing leg, McIlroy is favored to make it two in a row.

Of course, the weather along the English coast could have a major impact. Punishing gusts whipped across Royal St. George's during the practice rounds, and the forecast called for McIlroy to be playing in the worst of the wind over the first two days.

American Jerry Kelly got the tournament started with a drive right down the middle of the fairway shortly after daybreak, playing in a light breeze with a sprinkling of rain. He wound up making bogey, but at least that was better than his start at this same course eight years ago.

Kelly began the last Open at Royal St. George's with an 11 on his way to an 86. This time, he failed to take advantage of his opening shot, running his approach though the back of the green and then needing three putts to get down.

Kelly compounded his woes by making a double bogey at No. 2.

McIlroy's astounding performance in the U.S. Open perhaps signaled the start of a new era in a sport that's been dominated by Woods. He's certainly won over the crowds with his joyful style, punctuated by plenty of smiles and eye contact.

"He plays golf with a real flair and a real charisma, and I think fans are drawn to that," Phil Mickelson said. "He plays with this youthful exuberance, and it's fun to watch and see somebody play golf like that and really enjoy it."

McIlroy thoroughly enjoyed himself at the U.S. Open, setting a scoring record at 16 under. The performance showed real resilience, as well, given the way he blew up on the final day of the Masters to squander a four-stroke lead.

"He played beautifully, obviously, and ended up winning," Mickelson said. "But it's not just how he won with his great play, but also the way he interacts with people, the way he draws people to him."

Fowler, who is five months older than McIlroy, is one of the top American hopes. The U.S. has gone five straight majors without a title, its longest drought in the modern Grand Slam era.

Top-ranked Luke Donald, coming off a four-stroke win in Scottish Open, was in the group right behind McIlroy. The Englishman was at 1 under through seven holes.

Defending champion Louis Oosthuizen had an afternoon start time.

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