Rory McIlroy didn’t disappoint in his first outing of 2017 as the world No 2 combined a mix of brilliance with some scrambling to make his presence felt in the BMW SA Open.
Making his first appearance in South Africa since teeing up in the same event at the end of 2008, McIlroy made seven birdies as he signed for a five-under-par 67 at Glendower Golf Club in Gauteng.
That left him in joint third place, one shot off the lead after Trevor Fisher Jnr’s morning 66, which included a burst of seven birdies in eight holes, was matched by another home player, Keith Horne.
McIlroy, who decided to play in the first European Tour event in 2017 as a favour to Ernie Els, the tournament host, also hit a purple patch, picking up four shots on the spin from the 14th after starting at the 10th hole.
After getting to five under with another birdie at the first, the four-time major winner then dropped back-to-back shots at the fourth and fifth before repairing that damage through gains at the short sixth and par-5 eighth. He used a slope to get his tee shot at the sixth back to within two feet before making the birdie at the eighth from out of the trees on the right.
McIlroy was also in trouble off the tee at the seventh and ninth holes but displayed his recovery skills at both of them to escape with pars, shaving the hole from 25 feet at the latter with a birdie attempt.
“It was a good solid round of golf and a good opening round,” he said afterwards in an interview with Sky Sports. “I played well, starting off with a solid run of pars then making a nice run of birdies. I gave myself plenty of chances and probably missed a few. It was a bit adventurous on my back nine, but some good scrambling allowed me to salvage a few holes.”
It was an encouraging first outing with his new set of clubs, having put a Callaway driver and irons in the bag since the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai at the end of last season. “It’s nice to play like this in my first competitive round,” he added. “I’m in a fortunate position where I can pick and choose what I want to play with for the forseeable future. Once I get accustomed to these clubs, I will get even more dialled in, but for now they feel good.”
Three South Africans, Thomas Aiken, Dean Burmester and Jbe Kruger, as well as Englishman Jordan L Smith, last season’s Challenge Tour No 1, matched McIlroy’s effort, but it was a disappointing day for Els as he had to settle for a two-over 74.
In contrast, 59-year-old Nick Faldo marked his first European Tour appearance in over two years with a 70 to sit in a share of 27th alongside David Drysdale, who easily fared best of the four Scots in the field as he showed yet again why he’s earned a reputation for being something of a South African specialist.
With his wife Vicky on caddying duties, Drysdale three-putted both the 17th and 18th after starting at the 10th before finding water with his approach at the ninth. However, five birdies made it a promising start to the year for the Cockburnspath man. “OveralI, I played really good from tee to green, hitting 12 fairways,” he said. “I was in the semi-rough on my last hole with 115 yards to the pin, but it just jumped out of the lie and spun back into the water. But I then chipped it to about two feet so got up and down for bogey.”
Challenge Tour graduate Duncan Stewart started with three dropped shots as he signed for a 78, one less than both Scott Henry and Kirkhill amateur Craig Ross. Henry, who secured his main Tour return through the Qualifying School towards the end of last year, was out in 41 while Ross, who is playing as the South African Amateur champion, was unable to muster a single birdie on his European Tour debut.