Frustrated Rory must race out of blocks to avoid early Open exit
Rory McIlroy missed a golden opportunity to stamp his authority on the $7 million Dubai Duty Free Irish Open yesterday as benign weather conditions left the Portstewart links ripe for plunder.
The invitation to splurge on birdies and paint the leaderboard red was eagerly accepted by a large cohort of competitors, but McIlroy was not among them.
Truly, the spirit was willing. The execution was something else. McIlroy had to plough his own furrow and do his best to ignore the sight of playing partners Jon Rahm and Hideki Matsuyama forging up the leaderboard, closing on 65 and 67 respectively.
Level-par 72 was not a score which figured in McIlroy's pre-round calculations.
His sights, once he saw the lay of the land and the playing conditions, were on something in the mid-sixties or better, such as the impressive 64 that propelled Belgium's Benjamin Hebert and Daniel Im of the USA to the jointly-held overnight lead.
Flawless rounds from Im and Hebert established the course record at Portstewart and gave the unlikely duo - with a combined world ranking of 796 - a one-shot lead over Rahm, Oliver Fisher and Matthew Southgate, all on seven-under par.
Ireland's call was heard by Graeme McDowell, Paul Dunne, and tournament invitee Gavin Moynihan who headed the home challenge on five-under, 67.
Just behind them came Pádraig Harrington, Shane Lowry, and Michael Hoey on 68.
In total, 105 players of the 156 starters were under-par on day one, and with similar weather conditions forecast for today, the cut could come at a couple of shots or more under-par.
That means the pressure is on for McIlroy right from the start of today's round.
Last year, when he won at The K Club, the world number four filed 67 in round one, then followed up with 70, 70, and a closing 69.
Different course, different weather but the figures tell a tale. That level-par 72 yesterday puts the reigning champion in survival mode.
The wind was stronger in the afternoon and a couple of light showers of rain fell, but hitting only six fairways off the tee, and taking 33 putts is not a recipe for happiness at McIlroy's level.
Frustration was the theme of his day.
"I felt I gave myself a few chances but I just didn't quite get anything going. Just couldn't get any momentum. I was trying my hardest out there and yeah, just one of those days where I just couldn't quite get it going.
"You want to go out there and try to defend the title that you won last year.
"Tee to green, it's OK. It's right there. It's where it needs to be. I just need to focus on what I need to do on the greens and I feel like I'm on the right track. It's just a matter of being patient with it," he said.
McIlroy wants to go low today, but when 64 was suggested as a likely target, he replied: "I need to shoot something around that score you're saying, but it's not a goal of mine.
"I just need to go out there and play well and I know if I do that, then hopefully at the end of the day, it adds up to something like that," he said.
A crowd of 17,763 turned up to watch the action and they saw plenty of twists and turns.
Dunne made the viewing quite exciting before he signed for his 67.
The Greystones man could not get his driving in the groove, hitting only three fairways.
However, his putting was solid, with 27 shots taken on the green, and beyond that, staying patient and scrambling well got him into a nice position on the opening day.
Dunne birdied the second hole, and held his par up to the seventh, where he notched the first of three successive birdies that got him to the turn in 32.
"On seven, I had about ten feet for eagle, so that was a chance gone. And then I hit it to a gimme on eight.
"Then on nine, I just hit of kind a wayward drive and I was lucky to find it, really.
"Then I was just trying to hack it back into play and it came out perfect.
"It flew up to the green to twenty feet and I made it for birdie. That was a bonus, something I wasn't expecting. We get plenty of the opposite, so I'll take it when they come," he said.
His final birdie of the day came on the par-five 13th, and over the closing holes, Dunne kept grinding and protecting par as required.
"I had no bogeys today, and especially on the back nine, I was really struggling off the tee to get the ball in the fairway and it was nice to scramble my way in," said Dunne.
Moynihan, raised on links at The Island golf club, one of the top seaside courses in Ireland, also shot 65.
Moynihan, who has been operating on the EuroPro Tour and the Challenge Tour, was on the same winning Walker Cup team as Dunne.
They both turned pro after that 2015 match between GB and Ireland, and USA. Dunne has moved up the ranks, and Moynihan wants to follow in his footsteps.
Moynihan had six birdies and just one bogey.
"I played the par-fives really well, but turning point for me was on the fourth hole, where I had a six-footer to stay one-over.
"I was getting a bit angry. I was hitting a few bad wedge shots at the start, so that was a big putt there.
"I holed a bomb on the next hole. I was happy to finish with a birdie on the 18th. That one was from 40 feet.
"It was a great round and obviously it's a good start, but that's all it is, really. I'm happy with my game, so we'll see how we go tomorrow," he said.
Hoey is working hard to regain his playing rights on the top Tour, so his 68 yesterday was a confidence boost.
"I've taken some of my good form from Challenge Tour in here," he said.
"I'm driving it well, so gave myself a lot of chances. I felt like it could have been six-under, but four-under is a good start," he said.
- Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, Live, Sky Sports 4, 10.30am
- The Greenbrier Classic, Live, Sky Sports 4, 8.0pm