Sandwich, England: Denmark`s Thomas Bjorn, cruelly denied his first major win when the British Open was last held at Royal St George`s, went some way to banishing the demons of his late 2003 collapse by snatching the early lead in Thursday`s first round.
The 40-year-old Dane, handed a last-gasp place in the 140th edition of the oldest major championship in golf when Fiji`s Vijay Singh pulled out on Monday, made light of windy conditions on the Kent coast to fire a five-under-par 65.
While Bjorn was flying high after reeling off four birdies in five holes on the back nine, tournament favourite Rory McIlroy was struggling to make an impact on one-over-par after 12.
The 22-year-old Briton, the subject of `Rory-mania` at Sandwich as a result of his commanding eight-shot win at the U.S. Open last month, prompted groans from his army of fans when he three-putted the first hole.
McIlroy dropped another stroke when he failed to get up and down from off the green at the third but he then hit a mid-range iron at the eighth and drilled his ball under the 20-mph breezes to within eight feet of the flag and sank his birdie putt.
Bjorn was three strokes ahead with four holes to play in the 2003 Open before a calamitous bogey-double bogey-bogey run effectively handed the Claret Jug trophy to American Ben Curtis.
His main blunder came at the 16th where he needed three attempts to get out of a greenside bunker.
Eight years on it was a different story for the Qatar Masters champion as he peppered the flags on the inward half. At the par-three 16th he struck a majestic tee shot to eight feet before his curling birdie putt disappeared into the cup.
Bjorn spoiled his run of birdies when a poor chip at the 18th led to a bogey but he was still delighted to be leading by two strokes from Spain`s Miguel Angel Jimenez, who was three-under after 16 holes.
Britain`s Simon Dyson, playing in the same threeball as Bjorn and also the recipient of a late ticket to the Open following the withdrawal of American David Toms, was in the clubhouse on 68, two under.