By Tony Jimenez

TROON, Scotland (Reuters) - Colin Montgomerie, boosted by one of the best strokes of his 29-year career, had the home crowd eating out of the palm of his hand as he posted a level-par 71 in the British Open first round on Thursday.

The 53-year-old Scot, who is a member at Royal Troon and was given the honor of hitting the first shot of the championship at 0635 local time, briefly led the field after reeling off five birdies in seven holes on the front nine.

The inward half, however, proved a much more difficult test in fresh winds and three bogeys on that stretch halted Montgomerie's progress.

"There were more people out there on the first tee than I imagined and it was fantastic to get their support," said Montgomerie. "It was a great atmosphere."

The eight-times European number one made a nightmare start, double-bogeying the first hole after taking two to get out of a deep sand trap.

"The best shot I hit, probably one of the best shots of my life, was the fourth out of the bunker, away from the hole," said Montgomerie.

"No one in the field would have got the first ball out of there, it was buried in the face of the bunker. The second one fell into a footprint and my footprint is deeper than most... and I hit a great shot to get it out.

"A lot better players than me in the world of golf would have taken a 71 after being two-over at the first... so I'm very proud of myself for hanging on because it would have been easy to score 78, simple."

Spurred on by his escape with an opening six, Montgomerie went on a dazzling run, birdying the third, fourth, sixth, eighth and ninth holes before coming unstuck on the back nine.

"You'll hear this from everybody...I was three-under on the front nine and three-over on the back and that's (effectively)par for both," he said.

"Par should be three-under on the way out and three-over on the way back... and remember this course hasn't shown any teeth at all today."

Montgomerie, appearing at golf's oldest major for the 21st time, was not complaining despite having to get up at four o'clock to prepare for his early start.

"It was a great honor for me and the family and the members of Troon that I kicked it off this morning," said Montgomerie whose father was once the secretary of the club.

(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)