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Former champion Rory McIlroy admitted two late birdies helped “gloss over” an average first round of the Horizon Irish Open.
McIlroy, who won the title the last time it was staged at The K Club in 2016, carded an opening 69 in glorious conditions to lie three shots off the early clubhouse lead shared by Jordan Smith, Thomas Bjorn and Ross Fisher.
The world number two bogeyed his first hole of the day and drove into the water on the seventh to lie just one under par with two holes remaining, but holed from 18 feet for birdie on the eighth and four feet on the ninth.
“I think the two birdies in the last two holes sort of glossed over what was a pretty average day,” McIlroy said. “Didn’t really feel great with anything.
“It’s hard to say I’m rusty when I’ve only had a week off but I just haven’t had a chance to practice much and I just hit a few loose shots out there.
“Managed my game well and scraped it around in three under which is nice and sort of gets me in the tournament.”
McIlroy almost pulled out of the Tour Championship with a back injury and is not yet back to full fitness, but insisted that was not an issue on the course.
“It’s more that I have not been able to hit a ton of balls,” the 34-year-old added.
“I’m hitting good shots but it’s all about knowing your patterns and where you’re missing it and where to aim and where not to aim and just being a little unsure over a couple of shots.”
Ryder Cup vice-captain Bjorn admitted he was as surprised as anyone to find himself at the top of the leaderboard after a lengthy injury lay-off.
The 52-year-old has not played competitively since June due to collarbone and lower back problems, but carded seven birdies and a solitary bogey on the ninth, his final hole.
“I said to my caddie this morning when we walked to the first tee, let’s try to see if we can break 90,” Bjorn said. “It was that kind of day.
“I came here with no expectations and it just shows how silly this game can be. You can work hard for weeks and go out and shoot bad scores.
“Expectations sometimes get in the way of professional golf, as I’ve shown, and then you just go out and enjoy yourself, you’re just happy to be on the golf course after so long.”
Defending champion Adrian Meronk, who admitted on Wednesday he was shocked and angry to be overlooked for a Ryder Cup wild card, matched the 69 of playing partner McIlroy, with former Open champion Shane Lowry going one better with a 68.