American Keegan Bradley boosted his hopes of earning a Tom Watson Gleneagles pick to grab the TPC Boston clubhouse lead with a six-under-par 65 — five clear of McIlroy.
Webb Simpson and Ryan Palmer staked their claims also with five-under-par 66s while Ian Poulter, who posted a four-under-par 67, and fellow Englishman Luke Donald with a 69, sought to make Paul McGinley’s task a lot less stressful ahead of the Dubliner naming his three picks at 12.30pm next Tuesday.
One of those picks is sure to be Poulter, and with Graeme McDowell spelling out what most observers agree: “The way I see it, Paul has two picks and Ian Poulter.”
However, while Poulter was at his Poulter-like best in not wanting to be drawn into any ‘wildcard’ selection discussion there was no escaping for the Hero of Medinah, currently 12th on the points table.
“The Ryder Cup is on everyone’s radar as everyone wants to play in it, and I want to be a part of the team again, as well,” said Poulter.
“But then you don’t have to ask me about the Ryder Cup because I am solely focused on being ruthless this week and I can’t do anything about the Ryder Cup as it’s in somebody else’s hands.
“I spoke to Paul at the PGA Championship, so I just need to do my job and that is just play good golf, so it was nice to go out there today and shoot four under par.
“I’ve done what I can in trying to qualify automatically and it wasn’t good enough, so now everybody is talking about three, four or five guys [for picks] so that’s who you’d expect.
“But while I’ve heard those comments about me and also Westie’s [Westwood] remark sitting there in the press room last time at Medinah, which was pretty funny at the time, my record in the Ryder Cup is pretty good.
“So I’m not thinking about it and all I want to do is play golf. It’s been an awful year and I want it to turn around right now.”
And Donald, who has a best finish of second at The Heritage in April and could be one to miss out, is hoping McGinley will look favourably on his record of never having tasted defeat in six European Team showings.
“I keep asking myself one question that Paul might ask and that’s who would he rather have on Sunday of the Ryder Cup trying to win a point for his team?” said Donald.
“Obviously I have a lot of experience and I hope that is going to count for a lot but then it’s also wise to pick on form and my form hasn’t been the best.
“Hopefully, I am on the inside looking out and if I can just throw in a solid tournament this week and hopefully comfort McGinley in making that choice a little easier.”
McIlroy’s round was a mix of five birdies, including three in his opening four holes, along with four bogeys.
“The only real disappointment was posting back-to-back bogeys at my 14th and 15th holes,” he said.
“But the greens were a lot firmer than I’ve ever experienced and that made it a little tougher to score.
“So to shoot something under par isn’t a bad start.”
There was a humorous incident out front of the scorer’s hut with McIlroy tossing a tee peg at Australia’s Jason Day as Day was being interviewed by the media, and with Day, who is already well-placed at five under par, getting his own back when McIlroy took to the microphone.