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Shane Lowry has set his sights on a second Horizon Irish Open title backed by bus-loads of home fans after making a strong start to a massive month of golf.
Lowry carded seven birdies and three bogeys in an opening 68 to trail clubhouse leader Shubhankar Sharma by three shots on a sweltering opening day at The K Club.
The former Open champion, who was still an amateur when he won the Irish Open in 2009, will defend his BMW PGA Championship title next week and then make his second appearance in the Ryder Cup at the end of September, with Europe seeking to regain the trophy in Rome.
“Take away everything else that’s in the next few weeks, this is a big week for me, ” Lowry said. “I want to go out there and play well and give myself a chance to win this tournament.
“It’s only 45 minutes to an hour from where I’m from in Clara. I want the people to be getting on their buses on Sunday morning to come and watch me try and win this tournament.
“That’s all I want this week. It’s nothing to do with the Ryder Cup or Wentworth next week or anything.
“This tournament for me is huge. I feel at home here. I live in Florida and I miss home a lot when I’m away. It’s nice to be back.”
Lowry’s 68 was matched by compatriot Mark Power, who carded two birdies and an eagle on the 18th in his first start as a professional, as well as Ryder Cup captain Luke Donald, while Rory McIlroy returned a 69.
Rory McIlroy tees off on the 14th during day one of the 2023 Horizon Irish Open at The K Club (Brian Lawless/PA)McIlroy, who won the tournament the last time it was staged at The K Club in 2016, started on the back nine and bogeyed his first hole following a wayward drive and penalty drop, but birdied his last two holes to end the day on a high.
“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.
“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.”
Sharma’s flawless 65 gave him a one-shot lead over Jordan Smith, Ross Fisher and Ryder Cup vice-captain Thomas Bjorn, who admitted he was as surprised as anyone to find himself near the top of the leaderboard.
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 the third member of the group, American Billy Horschel, also carding the same score.