Rory McIlroy digs and claws out round to flip the script on his Irish Open opening day

Where Shane Lowry played liquid golf, McIlroy looked gassed but he only finished a shot behind his fellow Irishman

Rory McIlroy walks to the 17th tee during day one of the 2023 Horizon Irish Open at The K Club. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

It’s a stupid game, really. Shane Lowry and Rory McIlroy were playing 10 minutes apart all morning at the Irish Open and for pretty much the whole of the way round, it was like watching one man zip along on an airport walkway while the other tried to jog in too-small shoes. Where Lowry played liquid golf, McIlroy looked gassed. The home crowds looking for something to cheer were never confused as to where the good stuff was to be found.

When McIlroy walked off his 16th hole with a bogey after splashing in the water off the tee, he was four shots back of Lowry who had just birdied the eighth (his 17th). Half an hour later, as they joshed with each other just outside the scorer’s tent, their work for the day left them only a shot apart – Lowry signing for a 68 and McIlroy posting a 69. For a sport that makes such a big show of prizing honesty, golf can fairly mock the truth sometimes.

Because for anyone who had kept track of them both for the morning, a four-shot difference felt just about right. That birdie on the short eighth was Lowry’s seventh of the day and his fourth on the back nine. On top of which, he had left two other birdie chances sitting on the lip of the hole at the sixth and the 16th. His five-under-par score at that point felt like pretty much the worst it could have been. He was one off the lead and cruising.

Meanwhile, McIlroy had had to dig and claw to get his game into presentable shape. He was loose off the tee from the start, plugging his ball in the rough from his opening tee shot and starting his morning with a bogey on the par-five 10th. And yet, a couple of towering short irons on his last two holes completely flipped his script for the day. A birdie-birdie finish got him in at three-under-par. Stupid game.


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“Satisfied with how I finished but probably not satisfied with how I played overall,” was McIlroy’s verdict on the morning. “A bit of a struggle out there for me most of the round. Birdied the last couple and I sort of scraped it around and managed my game okay.

“I started missing some tee shots to the right on the back nine there [his first nine]. I think as well, I played the back nine blind. I didn’t get on the back nine at all this week before the tournament. There’s a couple of awkward tee shots that I had to refamiliarise myself with and I took some shorter clubs off the tee than I usually would just to get myself in play. So it was a slow and steady start but I was just trying to get myself into the round.”

Shane Lowry checks his yardage book. Photograph: Ben Brady/Inpho

Lowry was in jovial form too, despite the late bogey-birdie-bogey finish that left him on four-under. He’s long enough in the tooth now not to let a bogey on the last ruin what had been a lovely round in the circumstances. There’s always more pressure on them at an Irish Open – neither of them really shy away from that fact. For Lowry to brush that off and skate around here so effortlessly suggests good things ahead in a big month coming up.

“Yeah, I hit the ball really well today,” Lowry said. “I was very pleased with how I got my way around the golf course. It’s not an easy golf course. Happy with my day’s work, and get to go home to my own house and put the feet up and watch some golf this afternoon and tomorrow morning. And then get out there tomorrow afternoon and get after it again.

“I was pretty happy. I played nice and drew the ball well. My iron play was good and I rolled a couple putts in. Sixty-eight is not bad around here. The rough is thick, it’s tight fairways, the greens were good and lovely this morning and I managed to roll a few in, so it was nice.

“Outside of major golf it doesn’t get much bigger or better. Here this week, half an hour, 40 minutes from where I grew up, playing in my home tournament and then I get to go to defend at Wentworth next week and then I prepare the week after to play in The Ryder Cup – it’s kind of what dreams are made of. When you’re a kid growing up, this is what dreams are made of and I’m trying to embrace it as much as I can.”

And off they went, a few shots each back of the lead but both perfectly well set for the three days to come. Never did the old saw ring truer – the game ain’t how, the game is how many.

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times