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 Holywood golfer 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 with Graeme McDowell on three under.
Speaking about his round, McIlroy said: “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.
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 and eventually signed for an opening 71, one under par.
McIlroy won five times in 2012, including a second major title but his only “win” this season came in an 18-hole exhibition match against Tiger Woods on Monday.
However, Rory 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.”