Rory McIlroy celebrated his 34th birthday with a welcome return to form in the opening round of the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow in North Carolina as the world number three recorded a three-under 68, one better than Seamus Power.
A PGA Tour absentee since missing the cut at The Masters a month ago, it was hard to predict exactly which McIlroy would turn up, but his love affair with Quail Hollow shows no signs of abating.
A birdie-four at the tenth – his first – was the ideal start for the Holywood man, and he’d add another at the 14th to get to two-under. He’d make a good up-and-down out of the greenside bunker at the par-5 15th, albeit at the second attempt having left his first shot in there, and he’d remain at -2 until the fourth hole where a beautifully flighted approach to the par-3 set up a five-foot birdie putt that he’d drain to get to three-under.
Leading the field in strokes gained off the tee, a rare miscue on the day arrived on the par-5 16th as he pushed his drive towards the right-side hazard, the ball ricocheting off the pond’s stone wall, but finding dry land the other side. Unfortunately for McIlroy, that dry land was deemed out of bounds, making the resulting bogey all the more frustrating given the ease with which he covered the hole with his second ball.
He’d finish the day in style, however, rolling in an 11-footer for his fourth birdie of the day, and a three-under round that was just two off the lead with the afternoon wave beginning their rounds.
“I feel relaxed here,” Rory told the press afterwards. “I think if you come back to the site of your first win on Tour, and I’ve gotten to know the Harris really well and it’s just a level of comfort at this golf course and at this club that I probably don’t have any other venue on Tour. That’s a big part of the reason.”
The course has changed a little since his first win in 2010, and McIlroy feels that the changes play into his hands.
“It’s probably made it a little better,” he said. “The golf course has become a little bigger, a little longer. There’s one less par 5, which probably isn’t great for me, but then there’s a couple really hard par 4s put in there. I think it suited me both ways. And I’ve always had a level of comfort on this golf course, whether it was back in the sort of 2011-2012 era or sort of post-PGA in 2017. If you look at all the results, I certainly excel here in May rather than when we played it in August and it was full of bermuda, I struggled with that a little bit. When it’s like this and overseeded, I feel like it’s — that’s sort of the right in my wheelhouse.”
Seamus Power was playing two groups behind McIlroy, and also began with a birdie at the par-5 opener, but bogeys at 15 and 18 were offset with another birdie at the par-3 17th, and he’d make the turn at level par.
His third bogey of the day came at the third hole, moving the Waterford man the wrong side of par, and it appeared that what could’ve been a good opening effort was slipping away, particularly when his birdie putt at the fourth slipped agonisingly by.
But Power has become accustomed to life on the PGA Tour and has proven himself worthy of his lofty world ranking, and this was on full display as he’d birdie three of the closing five holes, including back-to-back birdies on 16 and 17, to reach the clubhouse on -2.
Kevin Streelman, KH Lee and Taylor Moore were the best of the early starters, the trio carding five-under 66s to set the target for Shane Lowry and the rest of the afternoon wave to chase.
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