For the opening nine holes at Royal St George’s, it was McIlroy at his best, bagging five birdies as he raced to the turn in 31, four-under, in the company of British Masters champion Richard Bland.
The 2014 winner then saved par with a brilliant recovery from a deep greenside bunker at the 10th, the expression on his face as he walked off there showing how big that could have been in terms of momentum.
It’s just typical of McIlroy these days, though, that one bogey - at the 11th - led to another couple pretty quickly as shots were also given back at the 13th and 15th while a par at the 14th also feels like a dropped shot at the Sandwich course this week.
“Sort of a tale of two nines,” said the Northern Irishman as he summed up his 69 for a one-under-total. “I played great on the front nine, hit some really good iron shots and converted some putts and really got it going.
“Then the back nine played tough. They're sort of tucking the pins away. They've stretched the golf course out to as long as it can play. I was hitting 2-iron into the par-3 11th hole. I missed a short putt there for par and it kind of killed the momentum I had.
“Not birdieing the par-5 and making another couple bogeys on the way in, certainly it felt like a better round than 1-under par, but it was encouraging to see some of the golf that I played on that front nine.”
McIlroy, who missed the cut in last week’s Scottish Open, is working hard with Pete Cowen to come up with a winning formula again in the events that matter most to him.
“It's just a matter of trying to keep that going and try to turn those nine-hole stretches into 18-hole stretches, and then those 18-hole stretches into whole tournaments. It's getting there,” he said.