Willett throws down gauntlet to Rory
Masters champion Danny Willett fired a 'catch me if you can' warning to Rory McIlroy as the box office stars of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open paraded their talents at the K Club yesterday.
Willett's return to the European Tour for the first time since his stunning success at Augusta last month revealed a steely determination to justify his new status as a Major champion.
McIlroy entered the fray with confidence in his game, and shrugged off the weight of pressure which has regularly stunted his performance level in this tournament.
The outcome was some fine golf played on a tough course in strong winds which kept the 12,834 spectators royally entertained.
Willett shot 65, McIlroy carded 67, equalling his previous best opening round in the Irish Open, putting him right on course to make the cut for the first time in four stagings of this tournament.
Visibly relaxed, the tournament host remained cautiously optimistic for today's second round.
"It's only one day, and I still have to make the cut tomorrow," he said.
"Until I get into contention and win this event, I don't think any weight will be lifted off my shoulders, so I'm going to have to try as hard as I possibly can, and focus as hard as I possibly can, to get the job done this week."
Willett, bidding to become the fifth Englishman to win the tournament in eight years, bounced back very well from his missed cut at the Players Championship in Sawgrass last week.
"It was a good day. Played some really good golf. Got off to a pretty scrappy start and chipped a few birdies in and got a bit hot with the putter," he said.
" You can't really go out there expecting to shoot any kind of number, and 65 was far beyond my expectations for today, especially after waking up with it a bit raining," he said.
"A bit raining" was an understatement for the torrential downpour which lashed down on the early starters.
The afternoon groups, which included Willett, McIlroy, Darren Clarke, and Graeme McDowell, got the best of the weather.
Shane Lowry and Paul McGinley were among the early birds who bore the brunt of the downpours, but the wind, the length of the course and the premium on driving accuracy helped check the overall scoring.
Just 30 of the 156 starters beat par. Callum Shinkwin of England and Jaco Van Zyl (South Africa) were hot on McIlroy's heels with four-under 68.
Martin Kaymer, twice a Major winner, and former Irish Open champion Ross Fisher set the early clubhouse lead at three-under par, and showed in their opening 69 they can make a decent challenge.
Today, the biggest galleries will follow the leaders, Willett, and McIlroy.
They start off the 10th tee, Willett at 8.35, and McIlroy ten minutes earlier.
McIlroy was pleased that the Masters winner is now in his sights.
"Hopefully it entices people to come out and watch the golf over the next three days," he said.
"Having Danny here is obviously a huge help and playing as he did today, it would be great if we could have a battle over the weekend and get the crowds to flock in. It will be one I'm looking forward to."
McIlroy's only blemish on the card was a three-putt bogey on the 14th.
"I think there was more out there. I thought it was a very comfortable 67, getting to minus-five after 14 with a couple of par-fives to come, and then had a bit of a blip on 14 with the three putt, but apart from that I felt like I played pretty well," said McIlroy.
Paul Dunne, who had spent most of the last week recovering from a bout of colitis, shot a creditable 70 in his first Irish Open.
"I played well, for the whole day, really," said the Greystones man.
"I played the first poorly, and managed to get a nice par, and from there, I just played really well.
"I made two sloppy bogeys on 16 and 17, really from nowhere, and it was nice to get a birdie on the last."
Lowry with 71, one-under par, was the next best Irish player.
He enjoyed plenty of home support and felt the confidence flowing in his game, despite the tough conditions.
His score could have been better but for a bogey on the ninth hole, his last, where he admitted to getting a little careless with his approach after a good drive.
"I felt good. I hit the ball really well today, a lot of good iron shots, especially on my back nine, the front nine there," he said.
"If anything, my second shot on nine was almost too easy. It was 150 yards straight downwind. It was just a little wedge and I hit about an inch behind it
"It's not the end of the world. If anything I should have gone down and got it up-and-down because it was a fairly straightforward bunker shot.
"I actually had a good up-and-down for a five. I would have been really disappointed if I was sitting there at level par.
"I feel like I probably should be at least two or three better, but they don't give out trophies on Thursday, so I'm in the tournament. I'm looking forward to the next few days."
McDowell joined Lowry on 71, and was happy to bounce back from a double-bogey on the third hole.
"I kind of made five from nowhere there on the par-three third," he lamented.
"I hit a fairly innocuous looking tee shot and an okay chip, and rifled it five feet by, and missed the one back, and thought, uh-oh, but I hung in well after that."
Rookie pro Gavin Moynihan and Ryder Cup 2014 captain Paul McGinley were satisfied to start on level par 72.
Darren Clarke, Peter Lawrie and another rookie, Gary Hurley, were in a group on 73. The best performer of the three GUI amateurs in the field was Colm Campbell Junior on 75.
Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, Live, RTE2/Sky Sports 4, 9.30am