No banana skins to disrupt his progress, Rory McIlroy’s final action of an opening round group win over Scott Stallings was to remove his cap on the 17th green and to shake the American’s hand: a comfortable 3 and 1 win for the Northern Irishman was just what was required as he set about his bid for a second career win in the WGC-Dell Technologies Matchplay Championship.
A winner at Harding Park back in 2015, McIlroy hasn’t fared quite so well at Austin Country Club – his best finish was fourth in 2016 – but, in what is the last edition of this particular tournament on the PGA Tour, the world number three gained the initiative early on over Stalling and overcame a mid-round stumble to regain his composure and close matters out on the 17th without any need to stand over his seven feet birdie putt as Stallings, having failed to chip in for a birdie, conceded.
On an opening day’s play which featured a number of surprises, US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick for one being well beaten by JJ Spaun and Tyrrell Hatton losing out to Ben Griffin, while the biggest of all was Jon Rahm’s loss to Rickie Fowler, McIlroy – with a new Scotty Cameron putter in his bag and also a new TaylorMade driver with a slightly shorter shaft than the one he had been using so far this season, won the opening hole and was three up through seven holes.
McIlroy’s only bogey on his scorecard came on the eighth (where he drove left and failed to find the green with his approach) which enabled Stallings to get one back while the American’s eight footer for birdie on the ninth gave him back-to-back wins to get the gap back to one.
However, McIlroy hit his tee-shot on the Par 3 11th to three feet to regain the two hole advantage and then closed the deal on the 17th where he again hit a lovely punched three-quarter 9-iron tee-shot to seven feet and then had the luxury of not being required to putt.
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Naturally enough, McIlroy was pleased with the win but also with how the new putter and driver had worked out: “There’s a ton of golf left this season but to get a little bit of matchplay in our lives is good and to get under pressure. It was good (to win). It was a good starting for both those clubs and they performed pretty well,” he said, adding:
“After the disappointment of the week at The Players for myself to come back out and play like this first day back out with a couple of new pieces of equipment, it feels good. The driver was really good. I’m much happier with where I am there. Obviously off the tee is such an important part of the game for me ... I knew I just needed to change it up a bit going back to a driver length that I’m a little more comfortable with.
“And the putter was good. I struggled a little bit with the speed, so I’ll work on that a little bit, but overall pretty happy with my win.”
Of the change in driver and its dimensions, McIlroy explained: “I used 44 inches in the driver most of last year. I went back to 44½ at the start of this year with the new driver because, it’s funny, I don’t like a lot of loft on the driver, and it just wasn’t spinning enough for me, so I needed to go to a new shaft. If I wasn’t going to get the spin from the loft, I needed to get it from somewhere else. So I went to a slightly softer shaft, and it’s actually really helped. I feel like I can hit a few more shots with it. It sort of hangs in there a little bit for me.”
Shane Lowry was disappointingly beaten 2&1 by American Taylor Montgomery, which leaves him an uphill task to qualify from a group that includes in-form Jordan Spieth. For Séamus Power, he was left to rue giving up a 2up lead with five holes to go, as Adam Scott finished with three birdies on the last five holes to sneak victory 1up on the 18th.
The biggest surprise of the first day’s play was delivered by a resurgent Fowler who was two down to Rahm after three holes and also through seven but then fought back to eventually claim a 2 and 1 win over the Spaniard. Fowler needs to at least make the quarter-finals to earn enough world ranking points to get back into the world’s top-50 and earn an invite to the Masters.