Rory McIlroy recovers from slow start to remain in contention at Wells Fargo Championship

Rory McIlroy watches a chip shot at the 12th hole
Rory McIlroy watches a chip shot at the 12th hole

Defending champion Rory McIlroy recovered from a poor start to keep his hopes alive of a third victory in the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte.

McIlroy won his first PGA Tour title at Quail Hollow in 2010 and has recorded five top-10 finishes in six appearances in the event, including carding a course-record 61 in the third round last year on his way to a seven-shot win.

But the four-time major winner, who is the only member of the world’s top five yet to win in 2016, had to settle for an opening 73 on Thursday to lie seven shots off the clubhouse lead held by India’s Anirban Lahiri.

Starting on the back nine, McIlroy dropped shots at the 12th and 13th before carding a double bogey on the 18th, where he missed the green with his approach and three-putted from 13 feet following a clumsy chip.

A birdie from 20 feet on the second was followed by another dropped shot on the next, but McIlroy then two-putted the fifth for a birdie and picked up another shot from just four feet on the sixth.

The 27-year-old had come close to holing his tee shot on the par three despite a disturbance among the spectators, with McIlroy and playing partner Rickie Fowler appearing to point out the offender to security staff.

Another two-putt birdie on the par-five seventh made it three in a row and although McIlroy narrowly missed from 15 feet on the ninth to get back to level par, he at least had not played himself out of contention.

Lahiri carded six birdies in a flawless 66 to lead by two shots from Australia’s John Senden, with double US Open champion Retief Goosen a shot further back and the English duo of Paul Casey and Ian Poulter on two under.

McIlroy has not played competitively since finishing 10th at the Masters and admitted on Wednesday he was attempting to fix some “bad habits” which had crept into his game before Augusta.

“I knew I was going to have to sort of play my way into the next couple of weeks,” McIlroy said in quotes reported by the Golf Channel.

“I started off pretty well today but then there was just some shots where I was thinking so much about the swing rather than actually the shot that I was trying to hit and that was really the problem for the front nine.

“I would much rather be in red numbers [under par] but I’m much happier where I am now than I was three hours ago. I just need to go out tomorrow and shoot a good second round, something in the 60s, get myself back into the tournament going into the weekend.”