The four-time major champion holed out an approach shot for an eagle en route to a 4-under 67 for a share of the clubhouse lead in the opening round of the Italian Open on Thursday at the Marco Simone club outside Rome.
After producing only one birdie on his opening nine holes — having starting his round on the back nine — McIlroy shot up the leaderboard when he landed his second shot from 115 yards on the par-4 third a few feet from the hole. The ball then rolled in and McIlroy lifted his arms in delight as he watched from afar back up the fairway.
“That eagle obviously ignited something and sort of kick started my round a little bit,” McIlroy said. “I played some really good golf on the way in. I played the more difficult nine well and the easier nine not so well, so probably evened out. Just need to tidy up a few things going into the next few days.”
McIlroy was tied for the lead with five other players: Gavin Green of Malaysia, Adri Arnaus of Spain, Scott Jamieson of Scotland, Eddie Pepperell of England and Antoine Rozner of France.
U.S. Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick was one stroke ahead at 5 under through 15 holes when play was suspended because of darkness.
Defending champion Nicolai Højgaard, who played in a group with McIlroy and two-time Italian Open champion Francesco Molinari, finished one stroke behind the leaders.
McIlroy went 5 under over his final seven holes.
The start of play was delayed for an hour because of lightning and conditions remained blustery throughout the day.
On the par-5 626-yard 18th, McIlroy drove his tee shot into high grass and had to chip out into the fairway before eventually sinking a 20-foot putt to save par.
“If you get it going off line here off the tee it’s very, very difficult,” McIlroy said. “The rough is incredibly thick and there’s sort of jungle outside of that if you get a play way off line.”
McIlroy has finished first and second, respectively in his previous two tournaments, the Tour Championship in Atlanta and the BMW PGA Championship in Wentworth, England, last week.
“If I can get the ball in the fairway the next three days, I should have a chance,” he said.
While Molinari struggled to a 2-over 73, Filippo Celli impressed for host Italy in his professional debut by placing two strokes behind the leaders. The 22-year-old Roman won the silver medal for best amateur at this year’s British Open, claimed the European amateur title and recently helped Italy win the Eisenhower Trophy — the world amateur team championship.
From Sept. 29 to Oct. 1, 2023, Marco Simone will become the third venue in continental Europe to host the Ryder Cup after Valderrama in Spain (1997) and Le Golf National in France (2018).
Ryder Cup captain Luke Donald and vice captains Thomas Bjørn and Edoardo Molinari are expecting feedback from McIlroy and others on how to set up the course to Europe’s advantage.
“I think stats-wise, you look at the American Team, they are very good sort of from 150 (yards) in, so try to set the golf course up so it’s a challenge to get your tee shots within that range,” McIlroy said. “Even this year compared to last year, some of the tee shots have been brought in and the rough has been brought in on either sides. You’ve got bunkers that you can carry at 300 or 310 but the angle it’s created is very, very tight and you’re hitting into smaller windows.
“By forcing people to play more conservative off the tee, I think that helps the Europeans a little bit.”
Donald, Bjørn, the Molinari brothers, McIlroy, Viktor Hovland, Fitzpatrick and Tyrrell Hatton ate dinner together Wednesday.
“It was good," McIlroy said, "to catch up and talk about the golf course."
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