ON A LOW day of scoring on the Portstewart links, Rory McIlroy was unable to hide his frustrations after failing to take advantage of favourable conditions during the first round of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open.
The defending champion, and tournament host, carded an opening round 72 to sit eight off the pace, with American Daniel Im and Benjamin Hebert leading the way after superb rounds on Thursday.
World number 542 Im holed a 20-foot par putt on 18 to sign for a 64 and was later joined by Hebert as they take a one shot leader over Spain’s Jon Rahm and English pair Oliver Fisher and Matthew Southgate into the second round.
Rahm thrilled the Portstewart crowds — nearly 18,000 were inside the ropes on day one — with an imperious display of putting but his playing partner McIlroy never got going as two front nine birdies were cancelled out by as many bogeys before the turn.
“I don’t think we’re going to get this course much easier,” McIlroy, who sits in a tie for 106th, admitted afterwards.
“There was so many scoring opportunities out there with loads of wedges into the par 4s, four par 5s that were all very reachable.
“I just didn’t — felt I gave myself a few chances but I just didn’t quite get anything going. Just couldn’t get any momentum. 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 okay. It’s right there. It’s where it needs to be. 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.”
It was a better day, however, for Paul Dunne as he carded five birdies during a very solid round to finish on five-under par and lie in a tie for ninth alongside his former Walker Cup team-mate Gavin Moynihan and Graeme McDowell.
McDowell, without a victory since November 2015 and down to 93rd in the world, has struggled for consistency over the last 18 months and has yet to record a top-10 finish this season.
But he has spoken about his desire to draw on home comforts this week and rediscover his touch on a course located just a few miles away from his family home in Portrush.
And he made an encouraging start on Thursday morning, although it could have been even better but for back-to-back bogeys on 17 and 18.
“I was happy with the way I rolled it on the greens generally and hit a lot of nice quality shots,” the 37-year-old said afterwards.
“A few tee shots that could have been a little bit better position but overall, happy enough with the start. Low scoring, you had to go and do something.
“It’s been frustrating [the season] for all the right reasons. Because I’ve been playing well, I’ve been walking away on Sunday nights, not feeling like I got enough out of the week. That’s a better frustration than when you just know you’re not playing well.
“The game’s not been far away, and you know, perhaps it’s a week like this week that can give me that little bit of spark and that little bit of inspiration to really kick me on with the summer. Really pleased with that start and getting back at it tomorrow.”
McDowell, who is staying with his parents this week, added that he was able to use local knowledge to his advantage on a course very few of the field have experience of playing before.
“I played quite a lot here in my teens,” he explained. “We used to play our school matches here but I’ve never played anything of any massive kind of consequence here. No doubt, good memories here, and I have played it probably a hell of a lot more than most guys.
“There’s a certain comfort level. There are a few new tee boxes and things out there, and the golf course is in great shape and really enjoying it and great crowds out there this morning cheering us all on. It was a lot of fun.”
Shane Lowry and Pádraig Harrington are also well positioned after opening round 68s while
After missing the cut at the French Open last week, Lowry declared that he felt ‘he played great’ and certainly his round was a model of consistency as he recorded three birdies before the turn and one down the home straight.
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