Rory McIlroy's bid for a first win of the season looked like being washed away on a miserable morning for the former world number one in the Irish Open.
McIlroy won five times last year, including his second major title in the US PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, but has struggled to reproduce that form in 2013. The 24-year-old finished 41st in the US Open at Merion a fortnight ago and yesterday apologised for throwing a club and bending his nine iron out of shape during a final round of 76.
The nine iron - one of the Nike clubs he controversially changed to in a multi-million pound deal in January - has since gained a new shaft, but that did little to improve his fortunes as he carded an opening 74 at Carton House.
Starting from the 10th, the world number two bogeyed the 11th and 12th before hitting back with a birdie on the short par-four 13th, but then dropped another shot on the 18th after a poor drive and equally poor pitch.
As the light rain which had been falling for most of the day intensified, McIlroy missed from 15ft for a birdie on the par-five fourth and then three-putted the par-five eighth from long range.
A birdie on the last came as welcome relief, but at two over par McIlroy was seven shots off the lead held by former champion and playing partner Shane Lowry, while the third member of the group - 2006 winner Thomas Bjorn - was just a shot behind after a 68.
Lowry, who was still an amateur when he won at County Louth in 2009, had bogeyed the opening hole but hit back with a hat-trick of birdies from the 13th and picked up another shot at the 18th to be out in 33.
He also birdied the fourth and eighth before a par on the last completed a round of 67 at the venue he represents on the European Tour and where he owns a house.
McIlroy cut a disconsolate figure after the round, admitting to feeling "a little lost at the moment" and unsure of whether his bad shots are going to go left or right. McIlroy's mood was in sharp contrast to that of Paul Casey, who carded a 68 to join Bjorn, Andrew Dodt and Cian McNamara in second place.
Casey was ranked third in the world in 2009 but is currently 169th after struggling with form and fitness, most notably in 2012 after breaking his collarbone while snowboarding.