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McIlroy all smiles after birdie blitz boosts Shanghai hopes

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A back-nine birdie blitz saw Rory McIlroy move to within three strokes of Li Haotong’s lead after the first round of the WGC-HSBC Champions.

Having started from the 10th tee, the four-time Major winner struggled to the turn trading three birdies and three bogeys for an even par outward half but for five birdies in six holes on the way home to transform his round, with McIlroy reaching the clubhouse sharing 7th spot at five-under par.

“I think it’s momentum,” said the 30-year old who looked in ominous form during his closing stretch of holes this morning.

“Sometimes you feel it a little more than other times and I definitely got the momentum on that back nine today, and tried to sort of ride that momentum to the very end. It would have been nice to pick up one more, had a good chance for birdie, but after the start today, to shoot five under, I’m not complaining.”

Indeed, McIlroy was one of 47 players in the 78-man field taking advantage of benign scoring conditions on day one by breaking par, and with the forecast looking tame for the rest of the week, the Northern Irishman is glad not to be playing catch-up heading into round two.

“Looking at the leaderboard and looking at the scores that have been shot, it definitely was scorable,” he added.

“There was no wind, so it was a day to take advantage of the conditions. It looks like the conditions are going to stay that way for the next few days, but it’s nice, the last few tournaments I’ve played, I’ve had a bad opening round and then been trying to play catch up. At least now, I’m right in the thick of things from the start, which is a better place to be.”

Unfortunately the same can’t be said for Shane Lowry who had a nice round going until a double-bogey at his 14th hole seemed to rattle the Open Champion.

Having also started on the back nine, Lowry had recovered from a dropped shot at his opening hole to move to three-under par with four birdies arriving by the 13th, and although he managed to show great bounce-back-ability to get one of the shots lost on 14 back on the 15th, the Offaly man dropped two more shots on his final two holes in a damaging finish.

Lowry now finds himself eight shots back of the leaders at even par, just inside the top-50 and with it all to do on Friday to get himself back in the tournament. That said, he can take encouragement from his slow start at the Zozo last week where Lowry improved on a day one 71 with rounds of 69, 67 and 65 for a lucrative finish.

It was all about home favourite, Li Haotong on day one after he thrilled the crowds with a stunning eight-under par 64 to take a one shot lead into round two.

The World Number 59 announced himself to the world with a top ten at Sheshan International Golf Club in 2015 and since then has gone on to claim two European Tour wins.

He made seven birdies and an eagle as he got to eight under on day one in Shanghai, becoming the first Chinese player to lead a World Golf Championships event after the opening round, from Frenchman Victor Perez.

“Today is a pretty good start and good beginning,” said Li. “Obviously it would be a great joy for Chinese golfers and Chinese golf fans to have a Chinese player winning a WGC-HSBC Champions here in China but for the next three days, anything could happen.

“So I don’t want to think too much about it. I just want to focus and concentrate on the upcoming three days because anything can happen. I just wanted to do a good job to keep this momentum going for the next three days.

“I don’t feel quite well with my status and my momentum because in the previous tournament, I wasn’t really playing that well. But I never expected today, that I had such a great round today in day one.”

Perez was making his WGC debut after claiming a maiden European Tour victory at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship last month and he carded two eagles en route to a 65, paying tribute to his caddie, JP Fitzgerald, a former bagman to Rory McIlroy.

“It was a great day for me,” said Perez. “Very pleased with how I played. I think I did a lot of things well today and I’m obviously in a great position after day one.

“Obviously the end of the year has been going quite well since the win at Dunhill. A couple of good weeks in Italy and France. It can always be better, but after win, you could go either way. You could really ride it or have a little bit of a downfall from it.

“I did well, coming in here with a lot of confidence and the course suits me fairly well. It’s long. The greens are going to be firm this week and obviously having JP helped a lot, as well today.”

England’s Matthew Fitzpatrick, defending champion Xander Schauffele, Australian Adam Scott and South Korea’s Sungjae Im were at six under, a shot clear of World Number Two McIlroy, Austrian Matthias Schwab and Canadian Corey Conners.

Li entered the week 23rd on the Race to Dubai Rankings Presented by Rolex but a first WGC victory would put him right into the mix to be crowned Europe’s Number One heading into the final three Rolex Series events of the season.

South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen made the 28th hole-in-one of the season on the sixth as he got to four under alongside Abraham Ancer, Danny Willett and Zhang Xinjun.

Full scoring HERE


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