Rory McIlroy exceeded his expectations with an opening-round 68 in the HSBC Champions on Thursday, but still saw two of his Race to Dubai rivals ahead of him on the leaderboard in Shanghai.
McIlroy revealed he had lost 10lb due to a severe bout of food poisoning after carding six birdies and a double bogey at Sheshan International to finish five shots behind South Africa’s Branden Grace.
Grace is more than 1.1million points behind McIlroy on the Race to Dubai, but each event in the Final Series offers 1.3million to the winner and the 27-year-old is in a rich vein of form after compiling a perfect 5-0 record in the Presidents Cup in South Korea last month.
A flawless 63 gave Grace a one-shot lead over Thorbjorn Olesen, Kevin Kisner and Steven Bowditch, with England’s Danny Willett – who is second on the money list – another shot back alongside 2013 winner Dustin Johnson and fellow American Patrick Reed.
McIlroy was taken ill on Tuesday and missed the following day’s pre-tournament pro-am, but could call on the experience of his four previous appearances in the event which have yielded four top-six finishes and a combined score of 52 under par.
“(It was) probably a little better than I was expecting out there to be honest,” the world number three said.
“When I was hitting balls this morning on the range I had not been out of bed for basically 48 hours, so I was really stiff. I needed to loosen up quite a lot, but when I got out there I felt pretty good.
“I’ve lost 10 pounds since being here. I can’t remember the last time I was this light. But hopefully (if I have) a couple of good meals over the next couple days and rehydrate I’ll be feeling a lot better. I’m looking forward to a good dinner tonight but hopefully it will stay inside my body.
“Thankfully it was a decent start, and now I’m going to try to just get into the tournament. I’m disappointed I missed three good chances coming in there on the front nine so it was a score I thought could have been a lot better, but considering the position I was in this time yesterday, it’s not a bad start.”
World number two Jordan Spieth, who can reclaim top spot from the absent Jason Day with a top-10 finish, matched McIlroy’s 68 to finish alongside defending champion and playing partner Bubba Watson, who celebrated his 37th birthday with a bogey-free round.