The Open 2017: Rory McIlroy six off Birkdale pace after fighting back to fire brave 71

Rory McIlroy says a 'good talking to' from caddie JP Fitzgerald help inspire his fightback
2017 Open Championship on the BBC
Venue: Royal Birkdale Dates: 20-23 July
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Rory McIlroy is six off the pace at The Open after battling back from an awful start to card an opening one-over-par 71 at Royal Birkdale.

McIlroy bogeyed five of his first six holes and needed to hole a 20-foot putt on eight to avoid another dropped shot.

But McIlroy, 28, had four birdies on his back nine as he came home in 32.

The 2014 champion, who has missed the cut in three of his last four events, is six behind US trio Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka and Matt Kuchar.

McIlroy fortunate to only bogey the first

World number four McIlroy was fortunate to only bogey the opening hole as he holed a 25-foot putt from just off the green after a wild second shot had put him in trouble.

Further missed greens saw the Northern Irishman drop further shots at the third and fourth and a four-foot par putt failed to drop at the next after an indifferent approach.

A horrible horseshoe out of the hole left him five over after six and he needed an up-and-down from a bunker to par the short seventh before rescuing par again at the eighth after another errant tee shot.

However, McIlroy was much improved on his back nine as a fine approach to six feet set up a birdie at the 11th after getting a good bounce to avoid a bunker from his tee shot.

As he finally began to find the fairway off the tee, McIlroy birdied the two par fives, the 15th and 17th, while a brave six-foot par putt at the 16th helped to maintain his back-nine improvement.

McIlroy went close with his eagle attempt on the 15th from 30 feet and left his putt short on 17 before rolling in a 15-foot birdie chance at the last.

Rory McIlroy with caddie JP Fitzgerald at Royal Birkdale on Thursday
Rory McIlroy says caddie JP Fitzgerald helped him to keep his spirits up after his awful start

Caddie Fitzgerald's role crucial says McIlroy

After his stunning back nine, McIlroy is convinced that he remains in position to challenge for the fifth major win of his career.

"I don't think tomorrow is going to be good at all (weather wise) but we might get the better of it maybe (in the morning)," the Holywood man told Sky Sports.

"If I can go out there tomorrow and try and keep these good feelings I have (after today), I feel like I am still right in this golf tournament."

McIlroy, who will tee off at 9:47 BST on Friday morning with Dustin Johnston and Charl Schwartzel, said caddie JP Fitzgerald had played a big role in keeping his spirits up after his horrible start.

"I didn't know where I was after six holes. JP tried to keep me as positive as I could be out there."

The former world number one acknowledged that his 20-foot putt for par at the par-five eighth had been "huge".

"Getting up and down from about 95 yards to get a par there was big - especially on the eighth which was probably one of the easiest holes.

"From the seventh hole on, I had to have 100% trust in myself and not be in two minds what I was doing, which was what I did on the first six holes."

2011 Open champion Darren Clarke
Darren Clarke's 75 leaves him with a huge task to make the cut on Friday evening

2011 winner Clarke 10 off the pace

2011 winner Darren Clarke finished well with birdies at the 17th and 18th but his 75 left him facing a huge task to make his first cut since last year's Open.

After four opening pars, Clarke, 48, had three straight bogeys and he carded two more bogeys and a double bogey.

"I hit the ball nicely but didn't putt very well," said Clarke after his round.

Two-time Open winner Padraig Harrington carded a 73 while Offaly man Shane Lowry was one better.

Harrington, champion when the major was last played at Royal Birkdale in 2008, failed to card a birdie as he dropped a shot on the seventh and then double bogeyed the 11th.

Twice major winner Spieth didn't drop a shot in his 65 and was later joined on five under by US Open champion Koepka and world number 18 Kuchar.

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