Hoylake - Rory McIlroy has shot his second best British Open score at Royal
Liverpool on Thursday to take the clubhouse lead in a low-scoring first
round that also saw Tiger Woods hit form.
SCOREBOARD: Open Championship - Round 1
The 25-year-old, two-time major winner's sperb six under 66, was bettered only by his course record 63 in the first round at St Andrews four years ago.
On that occasion he came back the next day and slumped to a horrendous 80 that all but wrecked his title hopes.
Halfway through a gripping first round which saw the 156-strong field greeted by perfect playing conditions, McIlroy had his feet up early afternoon in the clubhouse with a one stroke lead over rising star Matteo Manassero, who had seven birdies en route to a 67, the 21-year-old Italian's best Open score in four appearances.
Two more Italians - the Molinari brothers Edoardo and Francesco - were a further stroke back at four under, level with Americans Jim Furyk and Brooks Koepka and Sergio Garcia of Spain.
On three under 69 were Robert Karlsson of Sweden, Marc Leishman of Australia, Japan's Koumei Oda, Americans Rickie Fowler and Jimmy Walker as well as top Japanese hope Hideki Matsuyama.
They were then joined on that mark by Woods, playing in just his second tournament since undergoing back surgery in late March.
The 38-year-old American, who won at Hoylake the last time the Open was held there in 2006, bogeyed his first two holes, but three straight birdies from the 11th saw him move to two under and put a visible spring in his step as he closed out a morale-boosting round.
McIlroy looked full of confidence from the start in a young guns grouping with Jordan Spieth of the United States and Hideki Matsuyama of Japan.
He was three under after just six holes and further birdies came at 10, 12 and 16 as he quickly stamped his credentials as tournament favourite.
He could have gone even lower had he not hit his second from the rough into a tough greenside pot bunker at the par-five last.
"Anytime you shoot 66 at the Open Championship, you're going to be pleased," said McIlroy.
"We had perfect scoring conditions out there this morning. There wasn't much wind early on. The wind started to pick up a little bit on the back nine.
"But there was plenty of opportunities to make birdies. I was able to take a few of them. Another great start and, looking forward to getting back out there tomorrow."
Manassero, tipped for golfing greateness since he won the British Amateur title in 2009 said that he was happy to fly the Italian flag at Hoylake with the Molinari brothers.
"So very good for Italian golf. We got off to a fast start, all of us. And when you've got three, you don't have only one, there is more chances they're going to stay up until Sunday," he said.
"And it's going to be wonderful to have a few Italians up there on Sunday afternoon. It's going to be fun, if there is."
Defending champion Phil Mickelson, world number one Adam Scott, top home hope Justin Rose and US Open champion Martin Kaymer all had afternoon tee-times.
Most of the early focus, however, in what is the 143rd edition of golf's oldest and most prestigious tournament was firmly fixed on "fit-again" Woods.
The player who has dominated world golf over the last 17 years with 14 major wins came into Hoylake at a crucial juncture in his stupendous career.
The latest in a succession of swing-stress related injuries over the last few years saw him revert to back surgery in late March to relieve a pain that left him at times unable even to get out of bed.
Woods, 18 months shy of his 40th birthday, says that for the first time in years he is pain free and ready to go as he once again hones in on his lifelong obsession of matching and finally surpassing the all-time major record of 18 wins held by Jack Nicklaus since 1986.
Many though questioned his decision to return to action so quickly after his back surgery raising question marks over his physical and mental capacities at top tournament level.
Those doubts looked reasonable after his faltering start, but the triple birdie run on the back nine indicated otherwise and Woods looked energised as he came off the 18th green.
"I figured out how to manage my way around the golf course after an awful start, but got back to even par on the turn," he said.
"I know what it's like to win here but the golf course is completely different to when I won in 2006, it's much lusher. The weather forecast will change things over the next few days though.