Rory McIlroy’s struggles continue but Danny Willett impresses at Irish Open

Sheffield's Danny Willett watches his approach to the ninth  in round one of the Irish Open (Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire).
Sheffield's Danny Willett watches his approach to the ninth in round one of the Irish Open (Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire).
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WORLD No 1 and tournament host Rory McIlroy managed to retain his sense of humour despite suffering a nightmare first round in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open yesterday.

McIlroy carded nine bogeys and no birdies in an opening 80 at Royal County Down, six days after shooting 78 to miss the cut in the defence of his BMW PGA Championship title at Wentworth.

Only seven of the 78 morning starters broke par – US Open champion Martin Kaymer shot 79 playing alongside McIlroy – but former champion Padraig Harrington took advantage of marginally easier conditions in the afternoon to lead after a four-under 67.

Sheffield’s Danny Willett lies just two shots off the lead with a 69.

“It was not quite as difficult as I made it look,” McIlroy admitted with a wry smile after an opening round played in cold, blustery conditions and the occasional rain shower.

“I was hitting it well on the range, keeping it down and hitting half shots, but the wind was not up that much on the course and I was caught between trying to play two ways.

“That led to missing greens, which led to lots of eight- to 12-foot putts for par, which led to missing all of them.”

McIlroy has pledged to donate all of his prize money this week to his charitable foundation, while his association with the event ensured a top-class field and a sell-out crowd of 20,000 each day.

“It’s disappointing because I want to go out there and play well, not just for myself but for a lot of other people,” McIlroy added. “I’ll just have to pick myself up and go out there (today) and shoot a good one. I want to give the fans something to cheer about and not just get sympathy claps as I got coming off the ninth green.”

It is the fourth time McIlroy has recorded a score in the 80s as a professional, the worst being an 83 in South Africa a few months after turning professional in 2007 and the most famous his second round of 80 in the 2010 Open and final round of 80 when leading the 2011 Masters by four shots.

It was also the four-time major winner’s first round without a birdie since a second-round 79 in the Memorial Tournament in 2012.

Harrington, whose victory in the Honda Classic in March was his first on a major tour since the 2008 US PGA, was one over par after 10 holes before carding five birdies in the next six to finish one shot ahead of former Ryder Cup team-mate Soren Hansen.

Willett, second only to McIlroy in the Race To Dubai standings, started at the 10th hole and was two under through the first three holes after birdies at the 11th and 12th.

A bogey at 15 was offset by a birdie at the par-5 18th to cover the back nine in 34, two under par.

He had a quieter time on the front nine with a birdie at the first balanced by a bogey at the seventh, steering him towards his 69.

Matthew Fitzpatrick, also from Sheffield, was on level par 71 after a round which included four birdies – at holes one, nine, 12 and 17 – but also bogeys at the eighth and 15th and a double bogey at the par-3 14th.

Harrogate’s John Parry was one shot back of Fitzpatrick after a relatively quiet round which included 14 pars, two birdies and three dropped shots, two of them surrendered with a double-bogey five at the par-3 fourth.

Hull’s Richard Finch began his day at the 10th, like Willett, and had a similarly fast start, birdieing holes 12 and 13.

But his round buckled in the middle as he dropped four shots in three holes from the 18th.

Another bogey at the eighth saw Finch finish with a three-over-par 74.

Malton’s Simon Dyson is struggling with a wrist injury which requires surgery and it showed in a nine-over-par 80 which matched McIlroy’s.

His round included just seven pars and the benefit of his three birdies – at the sixth, 11th and 18th – were overwhelmed by four bogeys and an equal number of doubler bogeys, three of the latter coming consecutively at holes seven, eight and nine.

Luke Donald shot 70 while Rickie Fowler, playing alongside McIlroy, carded an opening 71 in his first outing since winning the Players Championship at Sawgrass.