Rory McIlroy’s approach to 18 on Day 1 of the DP World Tour Championship was so good that he couldn’t wait to watch it back on replay.
“I’m looking forward to seeing it on TV later, to be fair,” quipped the world No 2, not long after rolling in a closing eagle to post his lowest opening round around the Earth course. An opening 64 on Thursday left him on 80-under, one stroke off leader Mike Lorenzo-Vera.
“Honestly, it’s possibly the best shot I’ve hit all year,” McIlroy said, later adding that it could have been one of the finest of his four-major career. “It’s up there.”
Given his CV, and his 2019 alone, that’s some statement. It simply underlined just how good the strike was.
Armed with a 3-wood and with 291 yards to the pin and water lurking, McIlroy stripped his second on the par-5 18th to about six foot. It took two bounces, creeping just beyond the flag. He duly sank the putt to round off a superb opening day’s work.
To be fair, it's merely a continuation of McIlroy's season. The Northern Irishman may have come into the European Tour’s season finale out of contention for the Race to Dubai, but he won last time out, three weeks’ ago at the WGC-HSBC Champions in China.
It lifted McIlroy to four victories this year, a campaign in which he played more consistently than at any other time as a professional. He is the FedEx Cup champion, and the recently anointed PGA Tour player of the year.
More pertinently this week, McIlroy is a two-time winner of the DPWTC. So, all in all, the other 49 players should be pretty wary.
“It is, yeah,” McIlroy replied when asked if he's as comfortable on the course as at any time throughout his career. “I’m hitting the ball where I’m looking. It’s as good as I ever swung it, I feel. And then factor in the greens and the short game and everything, the whole package is working pretty well.”
To continue the theme, McIlroy ranks his golf since the hugely disappointing missed cut at the Open, which took place in July close to where he was born, as “some of the best I’ve ever played”.
Between then and now, he has triumphed at the Tour Championship en route to topping the PGA Tour standings, and in Shanghai. As such, he's now the only European to capture three World Golf Championships titles.
“Sometimes these experiences can be a really good thing for you and a catalyst to being a bit more motivated, or learning,” said McIlroy, casting his mind back to Royal Portrush. “I’ve tried to learn from every setback I’ve had and feel I’ve done a good job, not just this year, but all the way through my career.”
On Thursday, the only setbacks encountered, really, were the three lip-outs for birdies on the front nine, and a bogey on 12. Other than that, McIlroy raced out in 5-under through seven holes, before finishing with three fours to vault to within one of Lorenzo-Vera.
The Frenchman posted a 63 – the lowest opening round in tournament history – early in the day and, by the end, only McIlroy had gotten close. Former champion Jon Rahm was next best, at 6-under, with Tommy Fleetwood and Tom Lewis one further back.
However, considering his rank, reputation and event record, McIlroy remains undeniably the favourite. That trophy cabinet, a present from wife Erica that surprised him upon his return to his new house a few weeks' back, might need an extension already.
“Got back from China, walked into our sort of game room and up on the wall were all the trophies and stuff,” McIlroy said. “Obviously on a high from the win, so was cool. But it's a nice reminder sometimes.
“All that stuff had been in storage for a year and a half, so was the first time I’d seen the Claret Jug and US Open trophy and all that. It's cool, but it's also a great motivator to think, you know, I'm still pretty early in my career and I've done quite a lot, but I still want to do so much more.”