McIlroy was handed the robe, or a ‘bisht’, as an engagement present, moments after shooting a two under par 70.
The robe is worn to weddings or celebrations and McIlroy had good cause to be pleased in ending the day just three shots shy of the leading trio of England’s Matthew Baldwin, Frenchman Romain Wattel and Spain’s Rafa Cabrera-Bello, who head the event on five under par.
European Ryder Cup captain, Paul McGinley and Michael Hoey are among a big group a shot further back on four under par.
McIlroy’s upbeat demeanour was so different to a year ago when he left new equipment sponsor Nike red-faced with a score of 75 that included driving twice out-of-bounds.
There was no such concern with McIlroy competing in his 25th tournament since signing with Nike by continuing to exhibit his superb 2013 Australian Open end-of-season winning form.
“I just drove the ball so well today and probably as good as I did in winning the 2012 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island and through the FedEx Cup Series later that year,” he said.
“The combination now of the new driver and ball I’ve been using since October has really got me onto something now. It’s just a continuation of my good form at the end of last year and I really wanted to keep that going,” he said. “In saying that I was still a little nervous on the first tee, it being my first shot of my first event of a New Year but then I could not have been happier. I had been hitting it well in practice and while it is a little different when you are under the gun, it was just so nice to see the first drive of my New Year go straight up the middle of the fairway.
“So for the most part it was really good and if there was one shot I would take back it was the second on two as I was a bit in two minds, and apart from that everything else was good.”
McIlroy’s return to competition was somewhat overshadowed by Ryder Cup winning colleague, Sergio Garcia, who labelled the course as ‘dangerous’ and having to seek treatment on three occasions for an injured left shoulder exasperated by the thick rough.
However both McIlroy and Darren Clarke, who signed for a 74, scoffed at Garcia’s remarks.
“It’s not dangerous and besides we faced worse at the US Open, so if you get a bad lie, just chop it out,” said McIlroy.
Clarke commented: “The rough is brutal but in saying that I would not say it’s dangerous. It’s hard when you get into it but you just have to deal with it.
“Sometimes if you get a decent lie you can advance it 150-yards and that’s what you do. But then the answer is – hit it straight.”
McGinley raced to five under par mid-round, with his only dropped shot at 16 when he superbly chipped-in for a bogey, and in the process outscored playing partners and two of Europe’s up-coming stars, Thorbjorn Olesen (74) and Tommy Fleetwood (73)
“It was a big information-gathering process for me playing with young guys like Tommy and Thorbjorn and a great opportunity for me to get to know them and know their games,” said McGinley.
“You can watch them on TV and all that kind of thing but standing toe-to-toe with somebody is when you really get an appreciation of their game.
“The two are very strong players but there’s probably about seven or eight really young kids that haven’t played before, and I’m calling them kids.
“Tommy really is a kid, he’s only in his very early 20s. Their games are so impressive.
“We are very fortunate in Europe that not just for this Ryder Cup but for future Ryder Cups we’re in good hands in terms of what’s coming through.”
Michael Hoey is a shot further back after signing for a 69 while Damien McGrane carded a 70 and one fewer than Padraig Harrington and Simon Thornton.
Other Irish scores were: Kevin Phelan 72, Peter Lawrie 73, Gareth Maybin 73, Shane Lowry 76.