Rory McIlroy answered his critics in the best manner possible posting his lowest opening round in some 16 months with a blistering 63 on day one of the Travelers Championship in Cromwell, Connecticut.
McIlroy was very much in his element grabbing an eagle and six birdies for a seven-under par tally and the early clubhouse lead on the par-70 TPC River Highlands course.
Around an hour later Canadian Macekenzie Hughes posted 10 birdies in a score of 60 to storm past McIlroy into the lead in the €6.6m event.
Phil Mickelson, 50 and who played alongside McIlroy signed for a six-under par 64 while Shane Lowry bounced back into form moving to five-under with three holes to play but three-putted his 17th hole in a 66.
McIlroy’s score is his lowest first round score since a 63 on the opening day of last year’s WGC – Mexico Championship while more recently, McIlroy shot a 63 a fortnight ago on day two of the Charles Schwab Challenge in Texas.
McIlroy is returning to the Connecticut course for the first occasion since 2018 with a good scoring record of having produced a tally of 64 in his last round in the event in 2017 and then in returning a year later he also opened with a 64.
The Connecticut course is renowned as a birdie feast and in 2016 witnessed American Jim Furyk shoot an all-time PGA Tour low of 58.
“Given the low scores here in the past I have to keep reminding myself it’s a 72-hole golf tournament and there’s plenty of chances throughout the week to make birdies,” said McIlroy.
“Even after the first few holes where I had chances and I didn’t quite convert, so you just have to keep telling yourself, there are so many more chances coming up.
“As much as there are low scores, you just have to keep telling yourself be patient because inevitably you’re going to go through maybe a nine-hole stretch where you only make a birdie or two. You’re not going to keep shooting nine holes of 3 or 4 under all the time, so you have to remind yourself of that.”
After two weeks of playing tight, tree-lined courses in Texas and South Carolina, McIlroy quickly showed a fondness for the wider fairways of the TPC River Highlands course.
And it only took four holes for McIlroy to send his round soaring when he landed a 216-yard second shot at the par-5 13th, that he was playing as his fourth hole, that cleared water guarding to green to pin-high left and just 10-feet from where he holed for eagle.
Birdies followed at his fifth and sixth holes, and while dropping a shot at his seventh hole of the round, McIlroy was at his laser-like best landing a second shot at his 11th hole to just two-feet with the birdie moving him back to four-under.
McIlroy then advanced further into the red and to five-under in holing a 15-footer at his 13th hole.
The four-time Major winner then moved to six-under in landing a greenside bunker shot to just four-feet at the par-5 sixth hole or the 15th of his round.
McIlroy then finished on seven-under after brilliantly bringing the dog-leg right par-4 ninth hole or his 18th to its knees with a booming 318-yard drive leaving him just 60-yards to the pin for another three-foot birdie putt.
McIlroy hit 10 of 14 fairways while he posted 29 putts that included just 13 inward putts and he singled out a decision to pack a new 3-wood in the bag as a key to his low score while also speaking of the positives he took from his prior two weeks despite not being in contention.
“I put a new 3-wood into play last night and I hadn’t even hit it on the course,” he said.
“So, my first shot with it was off 10th my first shot of the day, and then I used it for my second shot on 15. It’s worked out pretty well so a nice little change.
“And in looking back on the past two weeks I deem them as successes.
“I hadn’t been to Colonial before. I hadn’t been to Hilton Head in over a decade, so if anything they were like practice weeks for me, and the fact I went out and had to shoot 65 on Friday last week to make the cut just to get an extra two days to get some reps in and practice, I felt like that was a pretty big success.
“So yeah, the results weren’t as good as what they were before the break, but you can’t base everything off results in this game, and I felt like I took a lot of positives out of the last couple weeks.
“But yeah, look, it is different playing. That’s why I was talking, even though two rounds last week at the weekend were very helpful for me coming into this week.
“It would have been terrible to miss the cut and not have those two rounds, not as practice because you’re sort of trying to get yourself into contention, but at the same time there’s so much big stuff coming up at the end of the year, and that’s really what you’re trying to build towards.”
Shane Lowry was in the group immediately behind his McIlroy and after missing the cut in both Texas and South Carolina he was also warming to the Cromwell course.
Lowry has contested the event just once before in his career and that was missing the cut in 2016.
The Offaly golfer, like McIlroy starting from the 10th, got his round going by chipping to five-feet at the 13th and then moved to two-under in following McIlroy by driving the green at the short par-4 15th and two-putting for a birdie ‘3’.
Lowry pared the next four holes and was rewarded with back-to-back birdies at the second and third holes on the card and the 11th and 12th of his morning.
He superbly moved to five-under at the par-5 fifth hole in chipping from just shy of the green and two-putting for a fifth birdie of his round.
Then in coming to the par-3 eighth hole or his 17th, Lowry three-putted from just over 30-feet for a bogey.