A busy man is Rory McIlroy. If his quest to claim the Turkish Airlines Open here on The Montgomerie is his immediate aim as part of his bid to retain the European Tour's order of merit title, there is also his commitment to making the Irish Open bigger and better.
However, the world number three won’t be issuing any special enticements to leading players ahead of next year’s staging at The K Club.
In assuming the responsibility of tournament host for the Irish Open at Royal County Down last May, McIlroy attracted Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia to the field with the promise of repaying the debt to them down the road.
Since then, though, the tournament purse has increased to €4 million and McIlroy doesn’t intend to call in such favours. “I’m not going to do any IOU’s [for 2016] like I did this year,” he said.
“It’s a fantastic tournament in its own right. I mean, it’s a bit of an awkward date on the calendar and obviously Royal County Down attracted a lot of guys because of the golf course that it is. That’s the sort of thing that I would hope for in the future; that the golf courses and the increased prize fund, obviously attract a few more players.”
McIlroy’s commitment to the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open – recently extended to 2018 – is total and he would ideally like to see the tournament played more frequently on links courses and closer to the British Open. “I’d love to see the Irish Open change date to closer to the Open to have a little bit more of a links swing going into the Open, where maybe it would be the Irish Open, Scottish Open, and the Open, or something like that. That’s a long way down the road but I’d like to see it go to that.”
More immediately, McIlroy's thoughts are on this big-money event in Turkey, the first of four in the European Tour's so-called 'Final Series'.
Although South African Jaco Van Zyl shot the lights out with a sizzling 11-under 61 to assume the first round lead, McIlroy’s opening bogey-free 67 offered sufficient nourishment to sustain a challenge.
For his part, Shane Lowry – one of those chasing down McIlroy in the Race to Dubai – opened with a 68 that was blighted by two closing bogeys.
“It is more of a marathon than a sprint for four rounds, so just keep picking off birdies, keep doing what I am doing,” said Lowry, who attributed his late lapses to a loss of concentration in three-putting the eighth, his penultimate hole, and a “sloppy” tee shot on the last.
McIlroy's front nine lacked rhythm, finding some "scraggly lies", as he put it, around the greens. And, on the par-five 18th, his ninth hole, he was forced to do an impersonation of Phil Mickelson by playing left-handed from rough behind a tree after pulling his tee shot.
Is that something he practises? “Not a lot but I seem to have to play them more often than I want to . . . as long as I don’t sort of break my wrists, and I keep straight arms, I have good enough hand-eye coordination that I’m pretty sure I’m not going to miss it,” he said.
McIlroy salvaged a par there and then turned on the after-burners with four birdies to move into contention.
His longest birdie was a 28-footer on the third, which led to him remarking to caddie JP Fitzgerald, “that’s probably the longest putt I’ve held in four months!”.
McIlroy's gameplan involved plotting his way around the course rather than overpowering it. For example, on the 17th, he hit a four-iron off the tee to leave himself a full wedge whereas Danny Willett, also in his group, launched a driver. Different strokes for different folks, with McIlroy content with his lot.
On Wednesday night, Lowry had put in a phone call to his coach Neil Manchip to talk about his putting and, apart from a three-putt aberration on his penultimate hole, was satisfied with his work on the green in the opening round.
Lowry is playing all four of 'Final Series', moving on from Turkey to play the HSBC Champions and the BMW Masters in China, and finishing up with the tour finale in Dubai.
“I’m happy with where I am. My game is still there, still pretty good,” said Lowry, who finished the day in tied-11th.
With the bigger picture of chasing down McIlroy in the Race of Dubai, he quipped: “There’s another 15 rounds to go.”
Graeme McDowell, who needs a top-two finish if he is to extend his European Tour season to Dubai, suffered a closing bogey in signing for a 70, while Michael Hoey, who injured his ankle earlier in the week, posted a 72. Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke, playing on a sponsor's invite, signed for a 75.
For Van Zyl – a four-time winner on the Sunshine Tour but chasing a maiden win on the European Tour – an indication that it might be his day came on the 11th where he holed a 60-foot putt. "I'd been struggling on my short game, particularly putting, but I put a little more effort into it this week," said the South African, who has a three-shot lead over England's Lee Westwood.