Darren Clarke is convinced that Rory McIlroy has the talent to surge ahead and win the Open from the front.

The Ulsterman, 41, trails his stablemate by seven shots after failing to take his chances in a solid 70.

But if he fails to challenge, Clarke can’t wait to watch the Holywood hotshot become the youngest man to lift the Claret Jug for 107 years.

Clarke said: “I said Rory probably was going to feature this week, a lot because of the player he is but also on the back of G-Mac winning at Pebble Beach. There’s no surprise at all to see him up there shooting 63.

“Can he go on to win it? There’s no reason why not, though there’s a long way to go. I’d much prefer to post 63 than 70 in the first round but he’s a fantastic talent and is just going to get better and better.”

Almost five years ago to the day, Clarke stopped to chat before a practice round at the Old Course and heard that McIlroy had shot a 61 in qualifying for the North of Ireland Championship at Royal Portrush.

And he believes that McIlroy is just going to get better and better with age and can’t wait to see how the youngster’s career pans out.

Recalling that 61 by McIlroy, Clarke said: “That’s right. I said then I wasn’t surprised that time and I’m not surprised he shot 63 here either.

“Can he sleep on a lead? I think Rory’s come on an awful lot since five years ago. He’s won in America and has done all sorts of stuff. You know he’s a massive talent and will keep on improving.

“What impresses me most is that he’s just a really nice kid. He’s just a normal guy and almost has got the world at his feet in golfing terms, he’s got that much talent for the game.

“I’m sure you guys are all going to be as interested in watching what’s going on as I am.”

As for his opening effort, Clarke was disappointed that he didn’t take advantage of perfect scoring conditions.

After carding five birdies and three bogeys, he said: “I had enough chances and just didn’t quite make anything. I made one nice putt all day on 16 and that was just about it.

“It’s okay. I would have been hoping for a little bit better but I played nicely and two-under par is by no means a bad start.

“It was a little bit frustrating to  bogey 17 from the middle of the fairway after such a great drive but, all-in-all I played nicely.

“I’m very comfortable with what I’m doing in my game and I hit a lot of really good shots out there today. It’s like any tournament, you’ve got to give yourself the opportunities and knock in the putts.

“This morning, with the weather conditions, there’s an opportunity to get it close and give yourself lots of chances.

“I did give myself lots of chances but didn’t convert them. I believe the weather is going to do downhill from here, so hopefully it blows hard and there’ll be a bit of rain.”