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Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell greet each other on the first tee at Wentworth yesterday

Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell greet each other on the first tee at Wentworth yesterday

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Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell greet each other on the first tee at Wentworth yesterday

IT took only a minute or two on a bitterly cold morning at Wentworth for Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell to banish any talk of a chill in their friendship.

After their opening shots landed side-by-side in the heart of the first fairway, McIlroy and McDowell looked more like the Chuckle Brothers than the Fighting Irish as they marched in perfect step to their golf balls.

Four and a half hours later, however, those smiles were replaced by matching grimaces as the two Ulstermen signed for frustrating first-round 74's in the BMW PGA Championship.

If McIlroy's regard for McDowell appears as strong as ever, his relationship with his new Nike Method putter is less cosy. For the second time since signing that lucrative $20m per annum deal with Nike last winter, the Holywood native went back to his old Scotty Cameron.

McIlroy dumped the Method after just 18 holes at the Abu Dhabi Championship, his seasonal debut and first event as a Nike player, explaining he needed a putter with more weight in its head to get the ball to the hole on heavily-grained greens.

He missed the cut in Abu Dhabi and reverting to a Scotty Cameron putter hardly produced the desired result once again yesterday as he took 33 putts on disconcertingly slow, bumpy putting surfaces at Wentworth, including a three-putt at 14.

McIlroy actually performed with distinction early-on and looked almost certain to break par for the first time on Thursday in six appearances at the European Tour's annual showpiece as he breezed to three-under through 12 holes.

However, he then made five bogeys in his final six holes as he opened with 74 for the fourth time Wentworth.

"It was just one of those rounds I let slip through my fingers," said McIlroy.

Apart from that three-putt, loose drives at 13 and 17 and a stroke of bad luck at the last, where his tee shot ran 10 yards through the fairway into an unplayable lie in a bush, sent McIlroy spiralling down the leaderboard.

Asked if intense media speculation about his impending split with management company Horizon and a fraught press conference on Tuesday had unsettled him, he insisted: "No, not at all.

"Even when I went three-under through 12, I felt it could have been a little bit better and when things started to not go my way, I really didn't hold it together too well."

McIlroy's putting held him back at the Masters, the Players and once again yesterday. For example, the 24-year-old created birdie chances on the first three holes, but converted only one, at the third, after hitting a magnificent mid-iron to inches.

In fairness, conditions were difficult, with unseasonably cold weather, strong whirling winds and, for good measure, a thunderstorm which caused a 90 minutes halt to play in mid-afternoon. Luke Donald was among the worst affected as his hopes of a hat-trick of PGA wins were dashed by a shocking 78.

Yet South African James Kingston made light of the conditions as he justified the invitation he received from this week's sponsors with an outstanding 66. He led Finland's Mikko Ilonen by one as play closed last night with players still on the golf course.

McDowell confessed he usually finds Wentworth "long and a bit of a slog" on cold days like these, saying: "It needs to be fiery for me to have a chance, really."

So, the Portrush man's disappointment was almost palpable after a double-bogey seven at the last.

McDowell's relationship with the 18th is fraught. He made an unfortunate eight at this quirky par-five on his way to a first round 74 last year. Yesterday, McDowell's final tee shot landed in a right fairway bunker. After laying-up, he was shocked to see his approach fall into the hazard in front of the green.

CHOPS

"I'm disappointed with the finish more than anything. I feel a bit beaten-up right now because I thought my third into 18 was a good shot. I was licking my chops with a 6-iron all over the pin and it got knocked out of the sky.

"I'm swinging the club great," said McDowell, winner of last Sunday's Volvo World Match Play, his second tournament victory in five weeks. "Just sometimes you get to golf courses which don't fit your eye 100pc.

Still, his and McIlroy's sunny disposition in each other's company was illuminating. "Whatever happens between Rory and Horizon Sports, the last thing I want is that we lose our friendship," said the Portrush man. "And that's not going to happen."

Strain showed between the two Ryder Cup, Seve Trophy and World Cup partners in recent days when McIlroy was irked by remarks made by McDowell under media questioning about the Holywood native's desire to set-up a management company of his own.

"After I explained to Rory where I was coming from, he understood," said McDowell. "We have no problems. He's a great player, a great friend and our friendship is not in jeopardy."

* Ryan Palmer scorched to the top of the leaderboard with a bogey-free eight-under-par 62 in the opening round of the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial in Fort Worth, Texas.

The BMW PGA Championship, Live, Sky Sports 2, 10.0

The Crowne Plaza Invitational,

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Irish Independent