Rory McIllroy nicely placed to catch leader Danny Willett
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 winner.
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 well from his missed cut at the Players Championship in Sawgrass last week.
"It was a good day. I played some really good golf. I 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 keep the overall scoring in reasonable bounds
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 8.35am, and McIlroy 10 minutes earlier at 8.25a.m.
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."
His 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 5 under after 14 with a couple of par 5s 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 sparkled at the Open last year, shot a creditable 70 in his first Irish Open. He said: "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."
Shane Lowry with 71, one-under par, was the next best Irish player.