McIlroy was distracted by a trigger-happy photographer on his second shot to the par-five 18th at Wentworth and needed a lucky bounce off a tree to avoid going out of bounds.
If looks could kill the photographer would have been in jeopardy – “I wouldn’t say dead,” McIlroy joked afterwards – and after almost holing the resulting pitch for an eagle, McIlroy’s mood was hardly improved by missing from three feet for a birdie.
However, a five-under-par 67 was still one shot better than he managed in the first round on his way to victory in 2014, with Denmark’s Lucas Bjerregaard setting the clubhouse target on seven under, a shot ahead of the South African duo of Dean Burmester and Darren Fichardt.
“It’s a tough enough golf shot without something going off at the top of your swing, but it happens,” McIlroy said of the incident on the 18th, for which he received a swift apology from the photographer. “It’s fine. I’m sure he didn’t mean to do it.
“I’m a little frustrated I couldn’t get a birdie or two out of the last couple of holes, but overall it’s a really good start. I played a lot better than I have done the last couple of weeks.
“I saw some good shots out there, better drives, and putted well for the most part. If I can just do more of the same over the next three days, I should have a decent chance.”
McIlroy was joined on five under par by Ryder Cup team-mate Matt Fitzpatrick and fellow Englishman Richard Bland, whose effort was witnessed by his brother Heath as he recovers from a life-threatening illness which saw him placed in an induced coma for a month at the end of last year.
Bland, who is seeking a first European Tour title at the 433rd attempt, said: “It’s going to take some more time but he’s on the road to recovery. We were a close family anyway but this has brought us even closer.
“He thought he had the flu and was just feeling a bit rough, but it turned out he had a virus which stopped his heart and they had to put him in an induced coma. It knocked us for six, especially as it was over Christmas.
“I’m certainly not going to make excuses for my golf [he has missed five straight cuts] but it was not easy, especially at the start of the year, but it certainly puts things into perspective. Even though I’ve had a tough time on the course, it’s really not that bad.”
Fitzpatrick admitted he is enjoying the comforts of home after spending much of the season on the PGA Tour, but knows the pressure is now on to secure a second consecutive Ryder Cup appearance.
Points earned from now on are multiplied by 1.5 and the 23-year-old from Sheffield, who is just outside the automatic qualifying places, said: “That makes it a little bit exciting. I think it will be interesting come the end of all the points to see what the team is. If you throw in one or two unlikely winners it could skew things a little bit. It probably puts pressure on the boys that are kind of expected to make the team because they’ve got to play well.”
Richie Ramsay finished the day as top Scot on three under par while Marc Warren, Bradley Neil, Paul O’Hara and Stephen Gallacher were all in a group at one under.
David Drysdale and Scott Jamieson sit at two and three over respectively but Gavin Hay endured a day to forget as he carded a 85, which left him bottom of the pile at 13 over.