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 sit close to the clubhouse lead 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.
It left him one shot behind Trevor Fisher Jnr after the home player illuminated his opening round with a superb burst of seven birdies in eight holes.
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.”
A huge crowd followed McIlroy and his two playing partners, defending champion Brandon Stone and fellow South African George Coetzee.
“I really enjoyed it out there,” said the Northern Irishman. “I didn’t expect to tee off at 7.10am and see both sides of the first hole lined with fans. That was great to see and we are fortunate to play in front of fans like this.
“The golf course is also fantastic. I’d never played in Joburg before and I never realised how far the ball went here. It is a long golf course but, when it it heats up like this, the ball goes a long way in the air.
“Its an old-style traditional golf course and is very enjoyable to play. You really have to think your way around, especially on some of those holes on the front nine, where I got myself into a bit of trouble.”
Two South Africans, Thomas Aiken and Dean Burmester, matched McIlroy’s effort but it was a disappointing day for Els as he had to settle for a two-over 74.
David Drysdale 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.
The Cockburnspath man, who has his wife, Vicky, on caddying duties this week, carded a two-under 70 to sit to sit inside the top 20 at the end of the morning play.
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.
Englishman Andy Sullivan, the 2015 winner, was another player who found it a struggle as he carded a 78 that included a triple-bogey 8 at the second.