By Tony Jimenez
HOYLAKE England (Reuters) - Golfing gunslingers Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods sprayed Royal Liverpool with a barrage of birdie bullets to steal the show midway through the opening round of the 143rd British Open on Thursday.
Northern Irishman McIlroy has developed a penchant for making fast starts and he did it yet again on a blisteringly hot day at the third major championship of the season, firing a pacesetting six-under-par 66.
Woods, playing in only his third competitive round since undergoing back surgery in March, confounded the critics who wrote off his chances by shooting a 69.
The 14-times major winner made a poor start by bogeying the first two holes but it was almost vintage Tiger on the back nine as he went storming through the field with five birdies in six holes from the 11th.
The former world number one, sporting grey slacks and a white shirt with blue/grey flecks down the front, got his round going when he holed out from off the green at the 12th.
Woods then rattled in a seven-foot putt at the 13th before dropping a stroke at the 14th following a hook off the tee into thick rough.
The 38-year-old American bounced straight back by sinking a 12-footer at the next hole. A delicate chip to 12 inches from the cup at the 16th gave him another birdie before a long-range effort lipped out on 17.
Interest in Woods was running high with American television network ESPN devoting the whole of its ESPN3 digital channel to coverage of him.
It was McIlroy, though, who took the tournament by the scruff of the neck with some scintillating shot-making.
Taking advantage of benign scoring conditions on a flat course with few undulations, the twice major winner peppered the flag on the front nine.
McIlroy almost holed out with his second shot at the par-four second before converting putts of six and 14 feet for further birdies at the fifth and sixth.
The 25-year-old made more inroads on par at the 10th and 12th before enjoying an outrageous moment of good fortune at the 14th when he avoided trouble in the rough with a lucky bounce on to the fairway.
McIlroy did not drop a shot to par all day and a sixth and final birdie at the 16th took him to the top of the leaderboard.
Matteo Manassero was in second place on 67, one ahead of fellow Italians Francesco and Edoardo Molinari.
Also on 68 were American pair Brooks Koepka and Jim Furyk as well as Spain's Sergio Garcia.
Among the late starters was title holder Phil Mickelson who launched his campaign at 1405 local time (1305 GMT) in a three-ball with twice former winner Ernie Els and U.S. Masters champion Bubba Watson.
(Editing by Tony Goodson)