Any lingering doubts that Rory McIlroy’s game was in fine shape heading into the DP World Tour Championship were dispelled early on Thursday. In fact, it took two holes.
McIlroy, who triumphed last month in his most recent competitive outing, began his quest for an unprecedented third victory in the European Tour’s season finale with a birdie. Then the eagle on the next was so good, the circuit’s social media team had quickly clipped it up and sent it out to the world.
“Honestly, all I was trying to do was get it in the front bunker,” McIlroy said, typically openly. “I didn't think I had enough club to get it over, but I absolutely flushed it. It was nice to hole the putt and obviously a great way to start.”
By the eighth, McIlroy had birdied three more holes, then rebounded from a bogey on nine by immediately picking up another shot on 10. A birdie on 18, made possible by a brilliant flop shot, secured an opening seven-under-par 65 and, even this soon in, an ominous two-shot lead.
Ominous, well, because McIlroy won around the Earth Course in 2012 and 2015, was tied-second in 2014, and boasts three more top-fives from 10 appearances. Clearly, the former world No 1 enjoys the place.
“I was saying to [playing partner] Dean [Burmester], I've been coming back here now for 12 years and it flies by,” McIlroy said. “A lot of experience around this place, a lot of great memories, and memories of great shots and great putts.
“It's comfortable for me. If you can carry the ball over 300 on this course it gets a lot easier, just getting over some of those fairway bunkers and the landing areas become that bit wider. Someone like Dean or myself today, that's an advantage for us. I've been able to use that to my advantage over the last few years here.”
After Day 1, McIlroy’s closest challengers are Finland’s Tapio Pulkkanen, South African Christiaan Bezuidenhout and Denmark’s Joachim B Hanson — last week’s winner on the neighbouring Fire Course. Current Race to Dubai front-runner Collin Morikawa, Sergio Garcia and Martin Kaymer sit in a group of 10 one shot further back, on four-under.
It could be some job keeping up with McIlroy, though. Patently, the four-time major champion figured out something after his struggles at the Ryder Cup, when he claimed a solitary point from four at Whistling Straits. He won The CJ Cup in his only other start since.
“I feel I'm a big boy now,” McIlroy, 32, said. “I've been around the block a bit, and if I have problems or struggles, I should be able to sort them out myself. Instead of looking to others, I'm going to take responsibility and that's what I did after the Ryder Cup.
“Put my head down and spent a lot of time on the range and just figuring out, 'OK, what is it do I do well and what do I need to get back to?’
“I've always been a very visual player. I always see shots. I don't know how much the shot tracer was out there today, but people probably see me playing shots again.”
Of course, there remains a long way to go this week. Yet, keep this going, end the season strongly — McIlroy has one more event, next month’s Hero World Challenge — and talk of finally adding to that major haul will increase again.
McIlroy lifted all of his four between 2011 and 2014. This campaign, he tied-7th at the US Open represented by far his best performance. He missed the cut at the Masters.
“It's hard,” McIlroy said. “Sometimes when you don't play your best, I maybe don't set my standards high enough sometimes. They are high, but getting into contention in one major this year isn't good enough for me.
“I've done way better than that before and I know I can again, especially with how I'm playing and feeling like I've got my golf game back, basically.
“So I'm excited for those four events next year, and excited about the road ahead because I really feel like I'm on the right path.”