An Italian job of sorts was carried out on the West Course as Francesco Molinari stepped into Rory McIlroy's spotlight. Just this once, it seemed, he had stolen the Northern Irishman's thunder as an impressive opening round of 65, seven-under-par, gave Molinari the first round lead here on the leafy Wentworth estate.
Not bad for an appetiser.
In truth, though, even when standing in the shadows, there is no hiding place for McIlroy.
The world number one used his clubs 71 times to at least finish with a sub-par round – plus one other occasion when tossing his three-wood in front of him in an act of frustration after putting his approach to the 17th through the green into the rough, an act that will likely lead to an undisclosed fine – and he later admitted to feeling “a bit angry out there”.
McIlroy – who has finished 1st-8th-1st in his last three starts and is playing here in the fourth tournament of a five-week stretch up to next week’s Irish Open before catching a breather – should perhaps be allowed some leeway for any element of mental fatigue in his bid to defend a title he won last year on a course he had previously described as “a grind,” but now admitting it was a case of having to “grin and bear it” if he were to control his emotions, especially on the greens.
In a round of four birdies and three bogeys, McIlroy’s frustration came from some loose shots and then boiled over towards the end. Frustration? Fatigue?
“I just need to stay in control of my emotions . . . . if I’m a little tired or a little fatigued mentally, I’ll start to be hard on myself,” he said, adding: “Mentally, I could feel myself getting down on myself and that’s something I haven’t been doing over the past few weeks. I need to be aware of that, to be conscious that I need to try to keep everything on an even keel.”
McIlroy was not alone in getting frustrated or in releasing a pressure valve, for the course – and a swirling wind – made correct club selection and shot execution paramount.
Justin Rose, the only other player from the world's top-10 competing, like McIlroy, signed for an opening 71 that was notable for nine straight pars on his homeward journey. In his case, patience was definitely a virtue.
Luke Donald, a former world number one but nowadays struggling to regain former glories, found one way to outwit the greens, which grew more untrustworthy as the round progressed. Thee Englishman, a former champion, chipped in twice to help sign for a 70 that puts him very much into the reckoning.
And McIlroy's pain was also felt by Shane Lowry, who had chased him home a year ago. That runner-up finish felt very much in the past for the Offalyman, who struggled to a 74, the same mark as Graeme McDowell.
“I just played poorly again. I don’t know what I am doing the last few months because I am trying my hardest, it’s just not happening. I have to stick my head down and keep plugging away . . . . I am just doing everything pretty average, it just feels hard to shoot a score at the minute. It’s quite frustrating,” said Lowry.
Only three Irish players managed to shoot sub-par rounds, with
(69), Damien McGrane (70) and McIlroy (71) managing to better par.
Niall Kearney, on his debut in the championship, stuck manfully to his game. The Dubliner was in four greenside bunkers on the four opening holes but managed to save par three times and eventually signed for a level-par 72.
It was Molinari – in some contrast to his brother Edoardo who was forced to retire mid-round with a wrist injury – who stole the show on the first day. Molinari, who is trying to juggle the task of playing on the PGA Tour and the European Tour, took a two-stroke lead over Sweden's Robert Karlsson with five players, among them Miguel Angel Jimenez, a shot further adrift on 68s.
The secret, as far as Molinari was concerned, was in staying out of trouble – out of the trees, and out of the deep bunkers.
“You need to be in control of the ball flight as much as you can, with the wind swirling around in the trees. There is more emphasis on accuracy off the tees,” he said.
On this occasion, Francesco, the younger of the brothers, did it better than anyone. He claimed the spotlight. But for how long?
There are players waiting to emerge from the shadows!