Rory McIlroy’s birdie blitz leaves him one back in South Africa

The Northern Irishman carded seven birdies on the way to a 67 in his first start of the year

Rory McIlroy plays his second shot on the eighth hole during the first round of the BMW South African Championship at Glendower Golf Club in Johannesburg. Photograph: Warren Little/Getty Images

Rory McIlroy's new mixed bag of clubs made little difference on Thursday as he opened the BMW SA Open with a five-under par round of 67, which included three twos, to sit one shot behind joint leaders Trevor Fisher Jr and Keith Horne.

McIlroy – who is playing in the tournament as a favour to host Ernie Els – is the hot favourite to start his year with a win in a weak field which is largely made up of players from South Africa's domestic circuit.

Indeed the only other two players inside the world's top 100 – Andy Sullivan and defending champion Brandon Stone – finished six over and two over respectively and will have work to do to make the weekend.

Darren Clarke, now free from the spotlight of being European Ryder Cup captain, got his year off to a solid start with a two-under par round of 70.


But it was McIlroy who drew the vast majority of the big crowds at Glendower Golf Club and he did not disappoint.

Starting on the 10th – where he hit his opening drive of the day 392 yards straight down the fairway – he parred his first four holes before kicking in to gear and sinking birdie putts at the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th.

Another birdie would follow at the par-five second as he made the turn to put him within one shot of nine-time Sunshine Tour winner Fisher Jr.

However, it was not all easy going for the four-time Major winner and he would slip up at the fourth and fifth to what was possibly a loss of concentration.

After finding the light rough with his drive at the fourth he left his wedged approach well short and was then too heavy-handed with his pitch, leaving too much work to be done for par.

Another missed green at the next hole should have caused little bother after a soft flop shot over the bunker to five feet but the par putt slid right and lipped out to make it two dropped shots in two holes.

However, there was no sign of the exasperation on the greens which plagued much of the world number two’s 2016 as he brushed it off to flight a beautiful tee shot to three feet at the par-three sixth before slotting the putt.

Despite missing the fairway at the seventh and dabbling with the trees, he showed off his improved short game to make a good up and down to save par.

Another wayward drive at the par-five eighth also caused little trouble as he managed to draw a superb recovery shot around the trees and on to the fairway before another up and down gave him a deserved birdie and a score of five under.

“Yeah, it was good,” McIlroy told the European Tour’s official website. “The first competitive round of 2017. I’m quite pleased.

“I felt like I gave myself a lot of chances on our front nine, the back nine. That four under could have been probably six or seven but it was a really good way to start.

“It was a bit scrappy in places around the last few holes but five under par is a good way to start to start this tournament.

“Weather-wise, not much wind, there was a score to be had out there. I think 67 I am pleased with but I feel that if we get conditions like that for the rest of the week I can definitely go lower.”

McIlroy, playing with new equipment after Nike’s decision to withdraw from the golf club business, revealed that he had been working hard on his game over the winter break.

“I had a lot of nice shots, I had some good iron shots,” he added. “I had some really good drives on the front nine, the first nine holes, and so that was encouraging.

“I made a couple of sloppy swings coming in but that’s something that hopefully I can work on and try to eradicate for tomorrow.

“I holed a few nice ones but the ones that I missed I feel a little more speed was needed than anything else.

“I’ve been working hard on my putting, I feel like from August last year to today it’s come on leaps and bounds and I hope it can only improve.”

Home favourites Fisher Jnr and Horne both carded seven birdies against a single dropped shots in their rounds of 66, while McIlroy was joined in a share of third by South Africans Thomas Aiken, Dean Burmester and Jbe Kruger and England’s Jordan L Smith.

Tournament host Ernie Els carded a two-over 74, while six-time Major winner Nick Faldo – making a rare competitive appearance at the age of 59 – produced a two-under 70.

Ruaidhrí Croke

Ruaidhrí Croke

Ruaidhrí Croke is a sports journalist with The Irish Times