Rory McIlroy off to red-hot start with 63 in Mexico City

Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar also make strong starts at WGC event

Rory McIlroy drives from the 12th tee during the first round of World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship at Club de Golf Chapultepec  in Mexico City. Photograph:  David Cannon/Getty Images

Rory McIlroy drives from the 12th tee during the first round of World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship at Club de Golf Chapultepec in Mexico City. Photograph: David Cannon/Getty Images

 

Rory McIlroy’s swagger told its own story, as the 29-year-old Northern Irishman – some 11 months since his last win on tour – set about putting his distinctive mark on the WGC-Mexico Championship with a brilliantly crafted opening round 63, eight under par, that left him in pole position.

One hole encapsulated McIlroy’s mindset and his brilliance with club in hand. Having started on the 10th hole at Club de Golf Chapultepec, a course at altitude situated outside Mexico City some 7,300 feet above sea level, McIlroy’s iron tee-shot on the 305 yards Par 4 first hole (his 10th) flew through the thin air to finish five feet from the pin. To cap it off, he coolly rolled in the eagle putt. He swaggered his way to the next tee.

McIlroy – without a win since claiming the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill last March – went into the WGC with top-five finishes in each of his three tournaments so far this season and moved up a gear with a superb first round in which he was flawless tee-to-green for 14 holes, only to slow down for the late run-in.

On a tight, tree-lined course, the demands for straight driving were emphasised by Tiger Woods’s waywardness on his opening hole, which led to a double bogey. In contrast, McIlroy topped the statistics in greens-in-regulation, approach play and putting which combined to put him atop the leaderboard.

McIlroy’s front nine run saw him claim four birdies – on the 11th, 12th, 15th and 17th, with the longest birdie putt an eight-footer on the 12th – to turn four under but he really upped the ante after that, throwing down the gauntlet to other pretenders to the title with that superbly claimed eagle on the first.

That eagle was followed by birdies on the second, where he pitched from greenside rough to four feet and sank the putt, and fourth as he moved to eight under on his card and into sole possession of the lead, a shot ahead of Dustin Johnson at that point.

By the time McIlroy stood on the Par-5 sixth, his impeccable play had seen him hit 14 greens in regulation. It was then that he hit his first speed bump, as his drive pulled left into the trees. His first recovery – aiming to fly the trees back up the fairway – only resulted in him hitting timber and left with little option other than to punch a shot onto the fairway. It would become the first green he’d failed to find in regulation, and led to a first bogey as he dropped back to seven under. It would also prove to be his only missed green of the round.

McIlroy reduced the 525 yards Par-4 eighth – which played as the toughest hole of the opening round – to a drive and mid-iron approach to 15 feet, sinking the birdie putt to move back to eight under on his card. He heads into Friday's round a shot ahead of Johnson in second and three ahead of Justin Thomas and Matt Kuchar, who are tied for third.

Talking after Thursday’s round, McIlroy suggested victory at the WGC would be a happy by-product of his current focus on the fundamentals: “Practising the right way, thinking well, training well, eating well, all the stuff that I try to do,” he said in comments published by the Golf Channel.

“Winning is a by-product of doing all the little things well and I feel like I’m on a really good journey of doing that. I think it’s just a matter of time.

“I can’t put pressure on myself, I can’t push it. I’m off to a great start this week but I literally have taken each and every day this year one day at a time and that’s the way I’m going to treat it. Not just this week, but going forward.”

Shane Lowry – the current leader of the European Tour’s Race to Dubai order of merit – overcame a bogey start on the 10th to respond with birdies at the 11th, 12th and 14th and then started his homeward with a birdie on the first to get to three under through 10 holes of his round. But the Offalyman suffered three bogeys in a row from the second to lose all the gains he had made - before a birdie on his last hole left him one under par for the round.

Part of the challenge for players was adjusting their yardages to take the altitude into account, the easiest formula for players being to take five per cent off the distance in their attempts to control their approach shots. But Tyrrell Hatton, who opened with a four-under 67, highlighted an issue with greens towards the end of the round. “It’s pretty tough to hole putts on these greens (17 and 18), looked like 200 people had walked over them,” he said.

Tied for fifth with South African George Coetzee, Hatton is a shot ahead of fellow Englishman Ian Poulter, who sits in seventh with Billy Horschel, Kiradech Aphibarnrat and David Lipsky.

Woods, who has 18 WGC wins under his belt, hit par to sit tied for 25th with England’s Paul Casey and eight others.

And it was a wholly disappointing day for last year’s champion Phil Mickelson, who went eight over par to finish a shot off the bottom tied 70th.

*Collated first round scores, WGC-Mexico Championship (UK unless stated, par 71):

63 Rory McIlroy (Irl)

64 Dustin Johnson (USA)

66 Justin Thomas (USA), Matt Kuchar (USA)

67 Tyrrell Hatton, George Coetzee (Rsa)

68 Kiradech Aphibarnrat (Tha), David Lipsky (USA), Ian Poulter, Billy Horschel (USA)

69 Xander Schauffele (USA), Charles Howell III (USA), Haotong Li (Chn), Keegan Bradley (USA), Cameron Smith (Aus), Sergio Garcia (Spa), Patton Kizzire (USA), Richard Sterne (Rsa)

70 Shubhankar Sharma (Ind), Shane Lowry (Irl), Jake McLeod (Aus), Tommy Fleetwood, Bubba Watson (USA), Aaron Rai

71 Francesco Molinari (Ita), Tiger Woods (USA), Alex Noren (Swe), Joost Luiten (Ned), Branden Grace (Rsa), Gary Woodland (USA), Danny Willett, Abraham Ancer (Mex), Paul Casey, Rickie Fowler (USA)

72 Hideki Matsuyama (Jpn), Ryan Fox (Nzl), Patrick Cantlay (USA), Louis Oosthuizen (Rsa), Kevin Na (USA), Jon Rahm (Spa), Thorbjorn Olesen (Den), Erik Van Rooyen (Rsa), Russell Knox, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Patrick Reed (USA), Henrik Stenson (Swe)

73 Brooks Koepka (USA), Kyle Stanley (USA), Shugo Imahira (Jpn), Aaron Wise (USA), Kevin Kisner (USA), Lee Westwood, Webb Simpson (USA)

74 Tony Finau (USA), Matthew Millar (Aus), Tom Lewis, Matt Wallace

75 Satoshi Kodaira (Jpn), Alexander Bjork (Swe), Bryson DeChambeau (USA), Jordan Spieth (USA), Chez Reavie (USA)

76 Emiliano Grillo (Arg), Lucas Bjerregaard (Den), Rafael Cabrera-Bello (Spa)

77 Marc Leishman (Aus), Byeong-Hun An (Kor), Eddie Pepperell, Adrian Otaegui (Spa)

79 Phil Mickelson (USA), Shaun Norris (Rsa)

80 Sang Hyun Park (Kor)

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