He certainly achieved some separation in the first round of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open but it wasn’t the kind he had in mind as he took 33 putts, hitting just six fairways in a level-par 72 that leaves him eight shots behind the unheralded leaders, 32-year old American Daniel Im and 30-year old Frenchman Benjamin Herbert.
It was doubly frustrating for the tournament host to play alongside Jon Rahm and Hideki Matsuyama and watch the rampant Basque take 26 putts in a seven-under 65 and the Japanese world No2 finish with his sixth birdie of the day for a solid 67.
On a day when a 10mph south-west breeze left the Strand Course at the mercy of some of the best players in the world, no fewer than 105 players in the 156-man field broke par.
McIlroy wasn’t one of them with his ice-cold putter the principle culprit.
“Pretty frustrated,” said McIlroy, summing up his feelings about the day. “Especially when you’re playing with Jon and Hideki and they are shooting 7-under and 5-under, I felt like I was going backwards just being level par.
“I don’t think we’re going to get this course much easier. There were so many scoring opportunities out there with loads of wedges into the par-fours and four par-fives that were all very reachable.
“I just couldn’t get any momentum. I was trying my hardest out there but it was just one of those days where I just couldn’t quite get it going.”
With the cut possibly set to fall as low as four-under par, McIlroy knows he is going to have to shoot in the mid to low sixties to get back into the mix for the weekend and close what he thinks might be a 20-under par winning score.
But he had no complaints about his putting stroke and complained that he simply found it tough to get the pace of the slower links greens.
“Actually, I hit good putts,” he said. “I hit them exactly where I was wanting to hit them. It was just a little bit of line, a little bit of pace, and that was really it.
“When the line was right, the pace wasn’t quite right. And when the pace was right, the line was a little bit off. Just one of those days, I didn’t quite match it up.”
McIlroy’s performance was as flat as he has produced in some time but with a good night’s sleep and perfect greens, it’s not too late for him to rally.
His two birdies were tap-in efforts at the par-five fourth and seventh holes but there were also bogeys at the par-three third (three-putts) and par-three sixth, where he mishit his tee shot and came up short.
He missed a 10-footer for par there, having already missed from 8ft for birdie at the fifth.
He then lipped out from 10ft for birdie at the eighth and knifed a greenside bunker shot over the green at the par-five 13th before settling for par.
He needs help from the weather and the field to get back into the tournament, adding: “A little bit of wind might be helpful, but still feel like if I go out there and shoot three scores in the mid-60s over the next three days, get to somewhere around 18- or 20-under par, might be good enough.”
Joint leader Herbert made eight birdies in a 64 to equal the course record set by Im earlier in the day.
The unheralded pace-setters lead by one stroke from Rahm and the English pair Oliver Fisher and Matthew Southgate.
Rahm was thrilled to shoot 65 alongside McIlroy and is gunning to become the fourth Spanish winner after Seve Ballesteros (1983, ’85, ’86), José María Olazábal (1990), and Sergio García (1999).
And he admitted that the electric atmosphere put him in the mood as he fired an eagle and six birdies for his lowest round on European soil as a professional.
“The atmosphere was so good,” Rahm said. “My attitude, it was probably the best it’s been all year. I was positive all day. Kept my routine going. Stayed calm and the result showed how good it was.
“That’s probably why I played so good. It’s the surroundings. It’s a beautiful golf course.
“I was telling Rory, I think it’s probably the most beautiful opening tee shot I’ve ever seen and out there with one of the most beautiful front nines I’ve ever seen... I just like it so much that I think I just kind of forced myself to play good with that attitude.”
Welshman Jamie Donaldson, the 2012 winner, is lurking in a share of sixth with David Drysdale and Matthew Fitzpatrick after a 66.
But it was also a good day for many of the Irish with invitee Gavin Moynihan holing a 40 footer for birdie at his final hole for a 67 that leaves him tied for ninth with the likes of Graeme McDowell, Paul Dunne, and Olympic champ-ion Justin Rose on five-under. “I drove it good,” Moynihan said. “The lack of wind was nice and I played the par-fives pretty well and took my chances.”
Michael Hoey also drove the ball well and posted a 68 to share 23rd with Pádraig Harrington, Michael Hoey, and Shane Lowry on four under with west Waterford’s Gary Hurley — a last-minute invite — carding a 69 to tie for 42nd with Waterville’s David Higgins.
“It was generous out there and three under was pretty good,” said Hurley, who was happy he travelled to Portstewart for 36 holes in May with Dunne having been unable to play a practice round this week due to his appearance at final qualifying for The Open on Tuesday.
“I winged a few into the rough but I putted really nicely, so that was pleasing. I’d love to take advantage of the opportunity I have. If I can putt as well as I did today and hit it better from tee to green, hopefully it will all come together.”