McIlroy takes Open by storm
Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy watches his shot from the third tee on the opening day of the 2014 British Open Golf Championship at Royal Liverpool Golf Course in Hoylake, north-west England on July 17, 2014 - by Andrew Yates
The 25-year-old, two-time major winner went out in three-under 32 and birdies at 10 and 12 nosed him ahead.
The early clubhouse lead was set at five under 67 by rising Italian star Matteo Manassero.
The Molinari brothers, Edoardo and Francesco, also of Italy and Brooks Koepka of the United States were a stroke further back after carding 68s.
On three under 69 were Robert Karlsson of Sweden, Marc Leishman of Australia and Japan's Koumei Oda.
The low scoring was made possible by the picture-perfect playing conditions at Hoylake that greeted the early starters among the 156-strong field.
The opportunity to go low was not lost either on Tiger 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.
Edoardo, the older of the two Italian Ryder Cup players, said that getting off to a solid start was vital at Hoylake this week.
"It's always important any week. But I think with the (bad) weather coming in for the next few days, it was very important to shoot a good number today. And you can play a little bit more defensively, if you need, in the next few days," he said.
Out on the course, American starlet Rickie Fowler moved to four under with a birdie at the 12th and he was joined on that mark by Spain's Sergio Garcia with a birdie at the 13th.
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.