At the start of the week McIlroy insisted he was unconcerned about the prospect of just the second winless season of his career, a season which will come to an early end next week.
But the four-time major winner’s bogey-free round at Close House equalled his lowest score of an injury-hit campaign and gave him a share of the clubhouse lead with Sweden’s David Lingmerth.
“You get yourself into contention and you start to think about things and it would be nice to get a win,” said McIlroy, who chipped in for a birdie on the fifth and carded three more in a front nine of 31.
“Hopefully I’m in at least the last half a dozen groups tomorrow and it will be nice to feel that again.
“The crowds have been fantastic. The last couple of tournaments I’ve been off pretty early on the weekends and had 50 people following me, where there’s thousands out there so it’s nice to get into that sort of environment again.
“I haven’t shot a low score like that in a while, so it was nice to see. I had not really got off to a good start the last couple of days, so to be three under through six it was nice to get off to a start like that.”
Lingmerth had earlier showed McIlroy and the rest of the field what was possible with a brilliant 62, the world number 107 having made the halfway cut with nothing to spare.
“I’m very pleased with how my round ended up today,” said Lingmerth, who carded nine birdies and a solitary bogey but could not claim a course record due to the preferred lies in operation.
“I try to get up three hours before my tee-time so my alarm was set for five o’clock. I’m not a morning person so I need to get moving and get my blood flowing.
“I got off to a bit of a rocky start and had to save a couple of pars early, but then got rolling with the putter and made five birdies in a row from the fourth and felt like I was swinging it better too.
“Putting on these fresh greens early in the morning definitely helped. It took me a few days to get used to the greens, the speed and how to read them. I saw my lines well, putted with great speed and had a few nice ones go in.”
McIlroy and Lingmerth were two shots off the lead shared by tournament host Lee Westwood and Tyrrell Hatton as the final groups began the back nine, Westwood having carded birdies on the second, third and ninth.
Hatton had got off to a poor start with a bogey on the second but also made a birdie on the ninth, a reachable par four where the tee shot from Ashley Chesters hit the pin and left him with a tap-in eagle.