Danny Willett’s masterful show leaves him two clear of Rory McIlroy

Masters champion opens with blistering 65 on first day of Irish Open

Danny Willett shares a joke with Lee Westwood’s caddie Billy Foster  during the first round of the  Dubai Duty Free Irish Open  at  The K Club in Dtraffan. Photograph: Paul Childs/ Action Images via Reuters/Livepic

Danny Willett shares a joke with Lee Westwood’s caddie Billy Foster during the first round of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at The K Club in Dtraffan. Photograph: Paul Childs/ Action Images via Reuters/Livepic

 

Nothing is easily won, not anywhere. Yet, Danny Willett has found a way. Just over a month on from claiming a breakthrough Major title – even if the green jacket as a Masters champion has been left at home for safekeeping in his wardrobe – there was more to admire from the Englishman in the first round of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at The K Club, as he posted an impressive opening round 65, seven under par.

Top man, again; for the moment anyway!

If the grey cloud cover and the stiff wind which blew through the ancient oaks and birch and beech trees here was a far cry from the warmer climes of Augusta National and its azaleas, magnolias and dogwoods, Willett played with similar control of his shot-making and, especially, his putter. He needed only 23 putts in a round that featured eight birdies and a lone bogey.

It was the sort of quality round that deserved to lead an Irish Open, with world number three and tournament host Rory McIlroy the one in his slipstream two shots back.

This was no easy course, with the holes down by the River Liffey especially difficult, but these guys are good and invariably found a way to get the job done. In fact, no fewer than 30 players managed to post sub-par scores which had seemed an impossibly high number when play got under way in the morning with frequent torrential downpours that required squeegees to rid the greens of water.

The course, though, was a tribute to the greenkeeping staff and there would be no suspension of play or untoward delays. Some found it tougher than most, with Eamonn Brady – once a career winner on the Canadian Tour – struggling to an 88 that was some 23 shots worse off than Willett’s, while others, not least Frenchman Sebastian Gros, was required to display considerable fortitude.

Gros suffered a quadruple-bogey eight on the seventh, but responded manfully by not dropping another shot on the way home and added four birdies to sign for a 71.

That the two highest ranked players in the field – world number three McIlroy chasing down world number nine Willett – should occupy the top two places after the first round was, in its own way, testament to their ability to answer the hard questions. And, for good measure, defending champion Soren Kjeldsen and two-time Major champion Martin Kaymer shot 69s to be in the mix.

Impressively, too, the Irish challenge – led by McIlroy – was augmented by sub-par rounds from Paul Dunne, Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell. For good measure, Paul McGinley, making a rare appearance on tour, and rookie pro Gavin Moynihan recorded level-par 72s. All in all, a decent opening from the home brigade.

For Willett, though, it was back to business. A missed cut in The Players at Sawgrass last week – his first tournament since victory at the Masters – had witnessed rust. Here, the rust had disappeared; he was a smooth-swinging machine, his mind focused. Although he only found 12 greens in regulation to McIlroy’s 17, his short game was sharp and his putter hot. The upshot was the lowest score of the day.

“This week has been trying to get back to what I do and try to get grinding and it’s obviously paid off thus far,” said the Yorkshireman. “Got off to a pretty scrappy start and chipped a few birdies in and got a bit hot with the putter. Can’t really go out there expect to shoot any kind of number and 65 was far beyond my expectations.”

What made Willett feel all the more comfortable was the appreciation shown to him by the galleries. He was clapped onto tees, clapped onto greens. “The support is massive, it just shows the players churned out over the years . . . it’s always good in Ireland, we play some of the best courses around.”

Now, it’s a matter of usurping the tournament host. Last season, Willett chased McIlroy home in the race to top the European Tour order of merit. So far this season, it has been a role reversal with the Englishman’s win in the Masters moving him to the top of the money list in Europe. McIlroy is chasing, both in the order of merit and here.

“First is never bad after one round,” confessed Willett, who talked of how things “have been a bit mental” since his win in the Masters.

The blip from Sawgrass has been exorcised from his system. “Every time you pitch up you’re trying to win. Even before I won the Masters, you’re trying to perform well,” explained Willett.

And the prospect of going head-to-head with McIlroy down the stretch?

“ I think that would be good fun,” he said.

FIRST-ROUND SCORES

(Ireland and Britain unless stated, par 72 (x) denotes amateurs)

65 Danny Willett

67 Rory McIlroy

68 Callum Shinkwin, Jaco Van Zyl (Rsa)

69 Brett Rumford (Aus), Soren Kjeldsen (Den), Ross Fisher, Martin Kaymer (Ger)

70 Richard Bland, Richie Ramsay, Matthew Southgate, James Morrison, Marc Warren, Paul Dunne, Niclas Fasth (Swe), Nacho Elvira (Esp)

71 Chris Wood, Roope Kakko (Fin), Graeme McDowell, Thomas Linard (Fra), Darren Fichardt (Rsa), Thongchai Jaidee (Tha), Felipe Aguilar (Chi), Stephen Gallacher, Sebastien Gros (Fra), Shane Lowry, Jamie Donaldson, Eddie Pepperell, Bernd Wiesberger (Aut), Bradley Dredge

72 Robert Dinwiddie, Jorge Campillo (Esp), Ashun Wu (Chn), Matt Ford, Mikko Korhonen (Fin), Renato Paratore (Ita), Gary Boyd, David Lipsky (USA), Rafael Cabrera-Bello (Esp), Lee Westwood, Daniel Im (USA), Nicolas Colsaerts (Bel), George Coetzee (Rsa), Lee Slattery, Gavin Moynihan, Thorbjorn Olesen (Den), Paul Lawrie, Tyrrell Hatton, Gregory Bourdy (Fra), Paul McGinley, Richard Sterne (Rsa)

73 Peter Lawrie, Oliver Fisher, Jeff Winther (Den), Tommy Fleetwood, Alejandro Canizares (Esp), Eduardo De La Riva (Esp), Adrian Otaegui (Esp), Trevor Fisher Jnr (Rsa), Marcus Fraser (Aus), YE Yang (Kor), Julien Quesne (Fra), Craig Lee, SSP Chawrasia (Ind), Jean Hugo (Rsa), Estanislao Goya (Arg), Haydn Porteous (Rsa), Matthew Baldwin, Darren Clarke, Rikard Karlberg (Swe), Raphael Jacquelin (Fra), Victor Dubuisson (Fra), Hao Tong Li (Chn), David Drysdale, Gary Hurley, Ross McGowan

74 Oliver Wilson, Joakim Lagergren (Swe), Neil O’Briain, Pablo Larrazabal (Esp), Joachim B. Hansen (Den), Gregory Havret (Fra), Steve Webster, Kristoffer Broberg (Swe), Daniel Brooks, Andrew Dodt (Aus), Gary Stal (Fra), Ryan Evans, Fabrizio Zanotti (Par), Borja Virto Astudillo (Esp), Thomas Pieters (Bel), Matthew Fitzpatrick

75 Andrew Johnston, Ricardo Gouveia (Por), Soren Hansen (Den), Joost Luiten (Ned), Brandon Stone (Rsa), Matteo Manassero (Ita), Morten Orum Madsen (Den), Robert Karlsson (Swe), Alexander Levy (Fra), Bjorn Akeson (Swe), Ulrich Van Den Berg (Rsa), Mike Lorenzo-Vera (Fra), Magnus A Carlsson (Swe), Andy Sullivan, Romain Wattel (Fra), Kevin Phelan, Jeunghun Wang (Kor), Richard Green (Aus), (x) Colm Campbell, Ruaidhri McGee, Russell Knox

76 Ben Evans, Edouard Espana (Fra), Chris Paisley, Johan Carlsson (Swe), Graeme Storm, Simon Khan, Anthony Wall, Peter Hanson (Swe), Scott Hend (Aus), Andrew McArthur, David Higgins, Pádraig Harrington

77 (x) Jack Hume, Colm Moriarty, Hennie Otto (Rsa), Alex Noren (Swe), Maximilian Kieffer (Ger), Mikko Ilonen (Fin), David Lingmerth (Swe), Alvaro Quiros (Esp), Seve Benson, Prom Meesawat (Tha), Damian Mooney, Robert Rock, Stephen Dodd, Miguel Angel Jimenez (Esp), Benjamin Hebert (Fra), Soomin Lee (Kor)

78 (x) John Ross Galbraith, Lucas Bjerregaard (Den), Jens Fahrbring (Swe), Jamie McLeary, Thomas Bjorn (Den), Pelle Edberg (Swe), Scott Jamieson

79 Nathan Holman (Aus), Rhys Davies, Michael Hoey

80 Brendan McGovern

81 James Busby, Marcel Siem (Ger), Jin Jeong (Kor)

88 Eamonn Brady

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