Shanghai surprise? Not for McIlroy
Rory McIlroy backed up his pre-tournament prediction in brilliant fashion with a superb 65 as Open champion Phil Mickelson suffered an astonishing collapse in the first round of the WGC-HSBC Champions on Thursday.
Without a win all season, McIlroy is a lowly 62nd on the European Tour's Race to Dubai and needs to move into the top 60 this week to have a chance of qualifying for the DP World Tour Championship in November.
The 24-year-old insisted he was more likely to win in Shanghai than miss out on a trip to Dubai and was as good as his word at Sheshan International Golf Club, carding eight birdies and just one bogey to finish seven under par.
That gave the Northern Irishman a two-shot lead over Spain's Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, who won the BMW Masters across the city at Lake Malaren on Sunday, and Welshman Jamie Donaldson. US Open champion Justin Rose, Bubba Watson, Jordan Spieth and Tommy Fleetwood are a shot further back on four under.
Mickelson had briefly shared the lead with McIlroy when he picked up his sixth birdie of the day on the seventh - having started from the 10th - but ran up a quadruple-bogey nine on the eighth.
After seeing his third shot come up short of the flag and roll down a bank into water guarding the green, Mickelson took a penalty drop and then span his fifth shot from the drop zone back into the same hazard.
The left-hander finally found the putting surface with his seventh shot and two-putted, but compounded his misery by hitting his approach to the ninth into the water to the right of the green. That led to a bogey five and meant Mickelson had to settle for an opening 71, one under par.
McIlroy won five times in 2012, including a second major title by eight shots, to finish top of the money lists on both side of the Atlantic, but his only "win" this season came in an 18-hole exhibition match against Tiger Woods on Monday.
However, the Northern Irishman told a post-round press conference that he was keeping his struggles this year firmly in perspective.
"I've tried to stay patient the entire season and I know that if I am working on the right things, then things will start to fall into place sooner or later," he said.
"It's obviously frustrating when you've had a couple of seasons where you have had success and not being able to emulate that.
"I wouldn't say that I was restless in terms of trying to get a win this season, because I think that the best way to approach it is to stay patient and not to force the issue too much.
"If I have a 25-year career, nine months of a 25-year career isn't actually that long. If you look at in the time you play an 18-hole golf course, it's really a half a hole that you're struggling on."
Speaking about his round, McIlroy added: "I feel good, I'm controlling my ball much better, seeing shots the way I like to see shots. It's getting there, it definitely is. It's only one round but it's a great start.
"I played very well, controlled my ball very well for the first 12 or 13 holes. I hit a couple of loose shots coming in that I got away with but it was nice to birdie one of the last couple to shoot seven under."
McIlroy is less than 4,000 euros (£3,400) behind Garth Mulroy in 60th place on the money list, but will now have his eyes firmly on the first prize of just over one million euros (£856,000).
"As I said, I've got a much better chance of winning this tournament than missing out on Dubai and a round like today only strengthens that position," he added.
Fernandez-Castano carded four birdies in his last five holes and hopes he can maintain his rich vein of form as he looks to secure a first Ryder Cup appearance next year.
"I've done that in the past and hopefully I can keep doing it this week but it's a very good tournament," the Spaniard said.
"I was feeling a little tired on Tuesday but I guess it's normal after all the adrenalin rush on Sunday and Monday.
"It takes a while to recover but I wasn't in the pro-am on Wednesday so I took a good rest and am feeling 100 per cent again."
Donaldson enjoyed a rollercoaster round featuring six birdies, an eagle and three bogeys, the Welshman driving the green on the short par-four 16th and holing from 25 feet for his eagle.
The 38-year-old finished 34th last week after an opening 79 and said: "I was all over the place that first day but sometimes it takes a bit of time to get in stride and today was a good day.
"I didn't sleep great last week so didn't feel great, but I'm fully acclimatised now and there's no excuses."