|Irish Open, first round|
|-5 R Fox (NZ); -4 A Chesters (Eng), A Saddier (Fra), R Rock (Eng), P Harrington (Ire), M Pavon (Fra), L Westwood (Eng), D Willett (Eng)|
|Selected others: -3 R Ramsey (Sco); -2 C Wood (Eng), P Uihlein (US), R McIlroy (NI): -1 G McDowell (NI); Level S Lowry (Ire); +2 J Rahm (Spa); +3 A Quiros (Spa); +4 R Cabrera Bello (Spa); +5 M Fitzpatrick (Eng)|
New Zealand’s Ryan Fox fired an opening five-under-par 67 to take a one-stroke lead at the Irish Open as Rory McIlroy endured more frustration on the greens.
The anticipated glut of low scores did not materialise at Ballyliffin and Fox’s aggressive approach off the tee saw him card six birdies.
McIlroy produced some magnificent approach play but seven missed putts inside 10 feet left him three behind.
Padraig Harrington is in a seven-strong group one off the pace.
A chip-in eagle on 17 was the highlight in Harrington’s impressive first round on the County Donegal links.
Former Masters champion Danny Willett and his fellow Englishmen Lee Westwood, Robert Rock and Ashley Chesters are among those on four under and in a group which also includes Frenchmen Adrien Saddier and Matthieu Pavon.
McIlroy’s recent Irish Open links struggles
McIlroy won the Irish Open at the K Club in 2016 but missed the cut on the last two occasions the event was staged on links courses at Royal County in 2015 and Portstewart 12 months ago.
The former world number one’s putting woes started as he missed from inside six feet on both the first and third before failing to convert an eight-foot eagle chance at the next.
After missing another short putt for par at the fifth, McIlroy did roll in a 10-foot birdie putt at the seventh only for another five footer to slip by on the 10th.
The 29-year-old holed a 15-foot birdie effort on the 12th but a missed green at the 15th saw him card his second bogey of the round.
After a routine birdie four at the 17th, a delightful approach to eight feet at the last presented the world number eight with a glorious chance to produce a sub-70 round, but once again the putt failed to drop.
Despite his putting struggles on a Ballyliffin course staging the event for the first time, McIlroy refused to be downhearted.
“I put the ball in play and drove the ball very well. My iron play was good. I just struggled on the greens,” said the Holywood man.
“It was either I hit good putts and just didn’t read them right or sometimes it was maybe a reaction from putts I had hit previously.
“I’m going to do a bit of work this evening and see if I can straighten it out,” added the 2016 champion.
Fox’s driver approach pays off
Despite the firm conditions on the sun-baked and tight Glashedy links, Fox opted for driver most of his way round and while he only hit “five or six fairways”, the 2016 Northern Ireland Open champion managed to avoid trouble for the most part.
Fox’s only bogey came at the 15th, after he had started at the 10th, and his sixth of the round at his closing hole saw him edge ahead of those on four under.
“Sometimes, it’s a bit easier hacking a lob-wedge out of the rough than a seven iron out of the fairways with some of the contours and the firmness,” said the 31-year-old Kiwi.
Playing the second nine first, 2007 Irish Open winner Harrington needed to conjure up miraculous escapes on the 18th and 1st after poor tee shots, with him salvaging par at this 10th hole thanks to a delightful long bunker shot.
Birdies by the 46-year-old on the fourth, sixth and seventh delighted the home fans, which backed up his earlier chip-in for eagle at the 17th following his only bogey of the day on 15 after a wild second shot.
“I needed momentum at that stage when I chipped in. I played 15 really badly and maybe things were starting to get away from me,” said the 2007 and 2008 Open Champion.
Defending champion Jon Rahm was among a number of fancied players to struggle as he carded a 74 which included back-to-back double bogeys.
Ireland’s Paul Dunne was only better on one over while 2016 European Ryder Cup players Rafa Cabrera Bello and Matt Fitzpatrick could only manage rounds of 76 and 77.
England’s Mark Foster notched a hole-in-one at the seventh with a nine-iron tee shot but there was no prize for the feat and his round was otherwise undistinguished as he signed for a 77.