Former world number one Rory McIlroy showed he was getting back to near his best as he made a solid start to the $7 million BMW Masters in testing, blustery conditions in Shanghai on Thursday.
Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland tees off at the second hole during the first round of the BMW Shanghai Masters at the Lake Malaren Golf Club in Shanghai on October 24, 2013
An upbeat McIlroy, who finished second in the Korea Open last week, was in the mood from the first tee, driving unerringly long and straight as he recorded four birdies and three bogeys in a first-round one-under par 71 to be firmly in contention.
The 24-year-old has struggled for form this year since changing clubs to Nike, failing to record a top 10 finish in his last 10 starts before last week.
Although he goes into Friday's second round six behind leader Luke Guthrie of the United States, he was one of only 13 players in the elite 78-player field to break par on Thursday.
And with strong winds forecast again for Friday, he was right in the mix in a tournament he won when it was an invitational two years ago and in which he finished second in 2012.
Guthrie had a day to remember on the greens, taking just 19 putts and chipping in twice in a row for birdie and then eagle at 14 and 15, as he shot a stunning seven-under-par round of 65 to lead by three shots from fellow countryman John Daly, who carded a 68.
Peter Uihlein shot a three-under par 69 to put, unusually, a trio of Americans on top of the board at the European Tour event.
"It was one of the better rounds I've ever played." said the young American Guthrie, who finished fifth in the US PGA Tour's Shriner Hospitals Open last week and had never played in Asia before this week.
"It's playing difficult. I had 19 putts and that was definitely the key to my round. It was only on the 10th when I realised I had one-putted the first nine holes," added the 23-year-old from Illinois.
On a day of fiercely gusting winds at Lake Malaren Golf Club, McIlroy struck the ball beautifully from the tee and was soon under par as a 25-foot putt rolled home at the par-four second.
But, as in Korea last week, McIlroy could not find consistency with his putter, taking three jabs from 10 feet at the fourth to give a shot back after his birdie putt lipped out, and missing a par effort in the 13th from even closer.
But that was no disgrace when plenty of players found it difficult to read the firm, fast and crusty putting surfaces.
In between those blemishes McIlroy fired further birdies at the seventh and ninth to go out in 34, two under.
Another birdie followed at the monster par-five 15th, but he gave it straight back at the next before parring in for his 71.
"I did some great work over the past few weeks and I'm swinging much better," a smiling and upbeat McIlroy said afterwards.
McIlroy revealed he changed his ball recently and now felt much more comfortable. "I think it's the best ball-driver combination I've ever had," he said. "I'm getting the highest ball speed I've ever got.
"But the most comforting thing is that I am swinging the club well and hitting the ball great."
Playing partner and fellow Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell shot a two-under 70 and said McIlroy was "ominously" back to his best.
"He looked very 2011-2012 Rory today," said McDowell.
"That's a bit ominous really. He drove it a lot more like the Rory we're more familiar with. He was awesome off the tee today."
McDowell was delighted with his day's work, having just taken five weeks off to get married.
"It was really tough. The conditions have spreadeagled the field a little bit. Nice to be at the business end," he said.
And he was expecting another tough day Friday. "Important to hang in there and not play your way out of it," McDowell added.
European Tour Race to Dubai standings leader Henrik Stenson of Sweden, playing with McIlroy and McDowell, showed no signs of his wrist injury on his way to level-par 72 and a share of 14th place.
He shared that mark with seven players including England's former world number one Lee Westwood and three-time major winner Padraig Harrington from Ireland.
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