It may be early days at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open but tournament host Rory McIlroy and Masters champion Danny Willett are shaping up for the sort of big-name duel this event has been crying out for.
Willett leads at the K Club following a seven-under-par 65 that showed no signs of the Augusta National-induced fatigue that followed his remarkable maiden major victory over Lee Westwood and Jordan Spieth a month ago.
Leading the chase of golf’s newest major winner is world number three McIlroy, so desperate to win his national open that he admitted last night the thought was giving him goosebumps.
The tournament has had some quality winners down the years but the last time an already minted major champion won one was in the early 1990s, when Bernhard Langer succeeded triple Irish Open winner Nick Faldo onto the roll of honour at Mount Juliet in 1994.
To have two of the modern game’s brightest lights set the stage for a showdown over the next three rounds should be enough to have golf enthusiasts flocking to the K Club this weekend.
“It’s a great day one,” McIlroy said following his opening 67. “Hopefully it entices people to come out and watch the golf over the next three days. Having Danny here is a huge help, and him playing like he did today, and me playing like I did, it would be great if we could have a battle over the weekend and get the crowds to flock in. It would be one that I’d be looking forward to.”
Willett’s reaction to the prospect of going down the stretch on Sunday with four-time major champion McIlroy was more muted. “I think that would be good fun,” he said, adding that there will always be so much emotional investment from a homegrown player on Irish soil.
McIlroy has been winless so far this season, his last victory coming when he topped the European Tour’s Race To Dubai by winning the DP World Tour Championship last November. His form has been good and it is tempting to think that winning again is just a matter of time.
So no better time, then, to land a first Irish Open title. “I just get goosebumps thinking about it, so I can’t really think about it too much now,” he admitted.
“To win here, no matter what the circumstances are, whether I’ve won the week before or whether I haven’t won in six months, to win the Irish Open would be something that would be very special, and I’ve got off to a great start towards doing that this week. Just have to keep playing the way I did today.”
McIlroy did play well as he and Willett were among the later starters who caught the best of the conditions, the showers which hampered early play disappearing in the afternoon, although strong breezes remained. The only blight on a card showing six birdies came with a three-putt bogey on 14. It added up to a 67 which equals his two best previous rounds in 10 Irish Open starts.
“I think there was more out there. I thought it was a very comfortable 67. Get to go five-under par after 13 with a couple par fives to come in, had a bit of a blip on 14 with a three-putt but apart from that, I felt like I played pretty well,” said McIlroy.
“It was nice to get an opening round like that and get a score like that under my belt, because I know what’s out there now. I know if I go out and play well and the conditions are similar that I can go even better than that.
“It’s only one day. Still have to make the cut tomorrow. But look, until I get into contention in this event and finally win it, I don’t feel like any weight will be lifted off my shoulders. Going to have to try as hard as I possibly can and focus as much as I can and try and get the job done this week.
“You’re talking about winning the Irish Open, and yeah, it gets you going. It’s a big thing, especially with how I’ve played here the last few years, it’s been very disappointing. There’s a lot of golf to play but it’s a very encouraging start.”
McIlroy finished a shot ahead of South Africa’s Jaco Van Zyl and Englishman Callum Shinkwin, who in turn will start the second round one ahead of three-under finishers Martin Kaymer and a trio of former Irish Open winners, Ross Fisher, Brett Rumford, and current defending champion Soren Kjeldsen.
Yet it will be the guy in front that will occupy the field’s thoughts as they jostle for position on day two.
Willett last week enjoyed a less than encouraging return to work following his Masters victory, missing the cut at the Players Championship. His return to Europe got rid of any lingering rust, his only bogey of the opening round coming on the penultimate hole at 17 although the Yorkshireman rebounded to birdie the par-five 18th.
“I’d have taken it this morning,” said Willett. “Woke up and looked out the window and it was miserable and raining. Yeah, we got dropped on. Great being the group behind Rory, playing with Westy (Lee Westwood) and Rafa (Cabrera Bello), so just a really good day all around. Holed a few putts and you walk off with a good score. First is never bad after one day. There’s still three days left and a lot can happen.”
Wicklow’s European Tour rookie Paul Dunne will attest to that having spent last week recovering from food poisoning contracted in Morocco, bouncing back to shoot a two-under 70, leaving him in a tie for ninth.
“Pleased with it,” said Dunne. “I definitely got the best out of the draw today. But I played well for the whole day. I played the first poorly and managed to get a nice par, and from there, I just played really well. Made two sloppy bogeys on 16 and 17 really from nowhere and nice to get a birdie on the last. Happy with the finish.”
Tee-off times (second round)
(Gbr unless stated, all times Local):
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