By Martyn Herman
HOYLAKE England (Reuters) - Fridays have become fright days for Rory McIlroy this year, with a series of inexplicable second-round meltdowns, but he hopes to break the curse this week at the British Open.
McIlroy produced a scintillating first-round 66 at a baking Royal Liverpool course on Thursday to top the leaderboard - a position he has become accustomed to.
With some stormy weather expected to roll in, however, what happens during his second round may determine whether he can add this year's British Open to his 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 U.S. PGA Championship titles.
The omens are not good.
At the Memorial Tournament in Ohio in May he followed a chart-topping 63 with a 78, in Dubai earlier this year he suffered a seven-stroke dip and last week at the Scottish Open he went from the sublime to the ridiculous, following a 64 with an horrendous 78.
Throw in the second-round 80 he carded at the British Open in 2010 (when he went on to finish third) after an opening 63 and another costly Friday 75 at Lytham two years ago, and the Northern Irishman has every right to feel a little uneasy.
Asked for his explanation, McIlroy told reporters: "Whenever I go out and play on Thursdays there's not really many expectations.
"You're going out there trying to find a rhythm, you're just trying to play your way into the round.
"When you go back out on Friday after a good score, you know what you can do on the course so you're going out with some expectations."
WALK IN PARK
With no wind and receptive greens to work with, McIlroy's round resembled a gentle walk in the park on Thursday as the sun was beating down on the seaside links.
He almost holed his approach shot at the par-four second before tapping in his first birdie of the day.
Plucking his driver from his bag on the par-five fifth tee, a sure sign of his confidence, he reached the green with two lusty blows and while narrowly missing his eagle putt he knocked in his second birdie of his round to huge cheers.
A laser-guided iron at the par-three sixth helped him gain another shot while a skilful chip at the par-five 10th resulted in another birdie.
Japanese playing partner Hideki Matsuyama (69), one of a bunch of young guns McIlroy expects to be vying with for major silverware over the next few years, kept pace for a while but ultimately had to bow to the flawless Briton.
McIlroy birdied the 12th and then enjoyed a lucky bounce on 14 to redirect a rare wayward shot out of harm's way and another birdie at 16 gave him the outright lead.
So far so good but now the hard part starts.
"It's not like I've shot good scores in first rounds and haven't backed them up before," he said. "I'm used to doing that. I just haven't done it recently.
"We'll see what tomorrow brings and what weather it is and try and handle it as best I can."
(Editing by Tony Jimenez)
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- Rory McIlroy