Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy lines up a putt during the first round at The Open on Thursday. Photo: Reuters/Jason Cairnduff

PORTRUSH – Rory McIlroy suffered an abysmal start on a morning of mixed fortunes for local favourites as the British Open returned to Northern Ireland for the first time in 68 years on Thursday.

Huge crowds descended on the Royal Portrush course on the Antrim coast, many heading to the first tee at just past 7.30 a.m. to watch Darren Clarke hit the first tee shot.

Clarke, who was joined in the morning groups by fellow Northern Irishmen Graeme McDowell and McIlroy, got off to a great start with three birdies in his first five holes, but he eventually leaked shots to finish with a level-par 71.

Ireland's Shane Lowry thrilled the crowd by making three birdies on his outward nine and taking the lead with a birdie on the 12th hole to reach four under. But he eventually gave way to the American Webb Simpson, who got to five under after 13 holes.

What McIlroy would do for that. The 2014 champion, who first played the Portrush course as a child, was roared on to the tee but carded a quadruple eight on the par-four first hole.

Rory McIlroy tees off on the 7th during the first round. Photo: Reuters/Jason Cairnduff

His opening tee shot went out of bounds, breaking a spectator's phone in the process. His follow-up attempt off the tee found heavy rough and from there he struck his next shot into an unplayable lie in a bramble bush.

After taking a penalty drop, McIlroy chipped on to the green. He picked his ball out of the hole, to sympathetic applause, with an ugly eight on his card.

The 30-year-old four-time major winner missed a birdie putt on the second and then bogeyed the par-three third after his tee shot went through the green into rough. After six holes, he was tied for 72nd place on plus five.

With moderate winds and early rain toughening the course, others found scoring easier.

Scotland's Robert Macintyre, playing his first Open, was in fourth place on three under. Macintyre eagled the par-four fifth and made three birdies as he reached the halfway point in 33. Sharing fourth was Frenchman Romain Langasque.

Rory McIlroy on the 5th during The Open, first round on Thursday. Photo: Reuters/Paul Childs

Emiliano Grillo's day brightened considerably when he claimed a hole in one on the par-three 13th. The 26-year-old Argentine's ace was the first at the Open since Louis Oosthuizen in 2016.

Despite damp weather for a second successive day, fans arrived early and in number for the sold-out tournament, with the expected total attendance of 237,750 making it the best attended British Open outside of St Andrews in Scotland. 

Reuters