Pre-tournament favourite Rory McIlroy blamed a “sloppy” short game for an opening round of 74 which left him facing a battle to avoid another early exit from the Irish Open.
McIlroy has a relatively poor record in his national championship, recording two top-10 finishes in seven appearances and missing the cut last year along with Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell.
The 25-year-old had the added incentives of being able to move top of the European Tour’s Race to Dubai and getting back inside the top five on the world rankings with a good performance, but could only finish three over par in perfect conditions at Fota Island.
“I still drove the ball great and got in the positions that you need to, but short-sided myself a couple of times, hit a couple of loose shots with my wedges and could not get a putt to drop,” said McIlroy, who had carded an approximate 62 in Wednesday’s pro-am.
“I was pretty sloppy with the scoring clubs so I might head to the range this afternoon to work on those. I need to do better tomorrow to be here for the weekend.”
Playing partner Harrington fared considerably better than McIlroy, the three-time major winner also making a birdie on the last to return a two-under-par 69. But that was still five shots off the clubhouse target set by Finland’s Mikko Ilonen, who carded eight birdies and one bogey to establish a new course record of 64.
England’s Matt Fitzpatrick, who was the leading amateur in last week’s US Open, carded a one-over 72 in his first tournament round as a professional.
Ilonen, who lost a play-off to Sergio Garcia for the Qatar Masters in January, had started on the back nine and was three under par at the turn before a bogey on the first proved to be an unlikely catalyst for five birdies in his last seven holes.
“On our 10th hole, the first hole, I made a mess out of it,” said Ilonen, who enoyed a three-shot lead over England’s Matthew Baldwin and Italy’s Edoardo Molinari. “I hit a big drive, middle of the fairway with sand wedge and I walk off with a five.
“Luckily I didn’t get too angry with it and I just get going and kept hitting greens and kept giving myself chances. Luckily in the end I made a few putts. I didn’t feel so good with the putter today but in the end, it started feeling good.”