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Rory off to a fine start in bid to end his Major drought


Green for go: Rory McIlroy lines up a putt on the third green at Pebble Beach
Green for go: Rory McIlroy lines up a putt on the third green at Pebble Beach
Rickie Fowler
Louis Oosthuizen plays a shot from the 12th tee

By Brian Keogh

Rory McIlroy ended a miserable run of opening-day form in the US Open with his first sub-par round since he won the title in 2011.

The Holywood star (30) took advantage of receptive and almost windless early conditions at Pebble Beach and carded a three-under 68 to lie just two shots behind clubhouse leaders Rickie Fowler, Xander Schauffele and Louis Oosthuizen.

It was just the start the Co Down man was crying out for after failing to break par and shooting an accumulative 36-over par on the opening day in the seven US Opens he's played since his incredible eight-shot victory at Congressional Country Club in 2011.

All four of his Major wins have come on the heels of opening rounds in the sixties and he's now got the perfect platform to go on and challenge for number five. "I did what I had to do," McIlroy said.

"I hit it in the fairways for the most part, I hit a lot of greens and even when I didn't hit some greens I was able to get it up and down.

"I feel like I did everything you need to do in a US Open. I stayed patient. I bogeyed the first hole and then played really solid golf after that - four-under for my last 17 without a bogey. I did what you are supposed to do at a US Open - make lots of pars, chip off the birdies when you can and it was a good day's work."

He knows it is important not to give himself too much to do too early, adding: "It's important for everybody but especially trying to get my way back to winning these big events it is important. In the first two Majors this year I shot 73 at Augusta and over par at Bethpage and it's so hard to chase, especially when courses are so tough.

"To get off to such a good start you are right in the tournament from the start, which is a nice position to be in."

Out in one-under 35, McIlroy made a big move at the 502-yard second, rolling in a 12-footer for birdie there before shrugging off an indifferent wedge to 22 feet at the third by rolling in the birdie putt.

He was up to tied second now and just two strokes behind Scott Piercy, and while he was irritated to lip out from 10 feet at the fourth for a birdie-hat-trick, he looked likely to drop a shot at the fifth but walked away with a bonus par-three.

Having only managed to hack his recovery from rough right onto the fringe, he made a 15-footer for his par.

He was in trouble again at the tough eighth but, after flying the green into thick rough, he played a deft recovery to seven feet and confidently rapped in the par putt.

It was just the opening round McIlroy wanted but it wasn't all plain sailing from the start.

As playing partner Jon Rahm opened with three successive birdies on the back nine, McIlroy tugged his 200-yard approach into a deep greenside bunker at the 10th before two-putting from 24 feet for an opening bogey. Regulation pars followed at the 11th and 12th before he made a 14-footer up the hill for birdie at the 447-yard 13th to get to within two shots of the Spaniard, who would eventually settle for a 69 that left him tied with Marc Leishman, Spaniard Adria Arnaus and 2014 winner Martin Kaymer. Every round has its key moments and McIlroy came through a test at the 15th, where he drove into a fairway bunker left, came up just short of the green and then made a curling, left-to-right 10-footer to save par.

He showed his class at the iconic, 216-yard 17th, rifling his tee shot high into the grey sky, leaving himself a 10-footer he calmly rolled in for a two.

While he had to scramble for par at the 18th, blasting driver into right rough and then scuttling his lay-up from the deep rough into the fairway bunker on the left, he resolved his problem with a low spinning pitch from just short of the green that left him a simple par putt inside three feet.

He turned in 35, but he soon got motoring with that excellent front nine to give himself the perfect start.

It was also the perfect start for nearly-man Fowler, who has had eight top-five finishes in Majors without winning, including three runner-up finishes. He was second to Kaymer in the US Open at Pinehurst and McIlroy in The Open at Hoylake in 2014 and second again behind Patrick Reed in the Masters last year.

But he looks like a man on a mission after making six birdies in a five-under 66 to join a leading trio in the clubhouse, with McIlroy two shots back alongside Austria-born Sepp Straka and Argentinian Emiliano Grillo on three-under.

Fowler was joined at the head of affairs by Louis Oosthuizen and Xander Schauffele after both enjoyed spectacular finishes.

South African Oosthuizen holed out from a greenside bunker on the ninth for a closing birdie, while Schauffele found the 18th green in two and converted from 10 feet for an eagle.

World No.1 Brooks Koepka, who is seeking a hat-trick of US Open titles, started ominously with a birdie on the first, despite his tee shot finishing in a divot in the fairway, and then followed it up with further birdies at the third and fifth.

Defending Open champion Francesco Molinari also showed the kind of steady form that has some believing he will be a contender this week with two birdies in his opening four holes, with Jordan Spieth a further shot behind at one-under par.

Tiger Woods, meanwhile, had two contrasting opening holes as he left a birdie putt in the jaws of the cup on the first before scrambling superbly at the second to save par and stay even after an errant drive.

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