Rory McIlroy jumped at the chance to give caddie JP Fitzgerald a timely vote of confidence after he opened with a “blind” three under par 69 in his first round since his closing 80 at Augusta on Sunday.
The Ulsterman didn’t have enough time to play a practice round ahead of the Maybank Malaysian Open at a steamy Kuala Lumpur Golf and Country Club. But he quickly praised Fitzgerald, criticised in several media outlets following his Masters meltdown, for his diligent preparation.
“It feels okay,” McIlroy said of an opening round that left him five strokes adrift of pace-setter Alexander Noren. “I got off to a good start which sort of helped. But the conditions here are a little different than they were in Augusta and I thought for not seeing the golf course before, three under was a pretty good score.
“JP did a great job. He came out here yesterday afternoon and walked the golf and basically guided me around today. He told me what to hit off certain tee boxes and it worked really well. He did a good job and now that I have played the golf course once, hopefully I will have a bit more confidence on it and I can start going a little lower.”
McIlroy flew 30 hours to Kuala Lumpur, arriving in the Malaysian capital on the eve of the event without his golf clubs, which were delayed in transit.
He was keen to get off to a good start following his disappointing collapse at Augusta but he was quick to point out that he is not nearly as distraught about what happened in the Masters as others.
“I am fine,” he said. “Other people are more upset than I am about it. I am going to have so many more chances to win majors. And that’s not being big-headed or cocky. I believe in myself and there are three more left this year and hopefully I will have a great chance in all of those.
“I am going to play, hopefully, dozens of majors before my career is over. It was a slight speed bump but nothing more than that.”
McIlroy birdied the second, fourth and fifth and came back from his lone bogey at the 14th with a 17th hole birdie from around six feet in a round featuring 32 putts (30 for the 16 greens he hit in regulation).
He made sure he gave himself the best chance of performing by getting to the course early to practice before heading out in high temperatures early in the afternoon.
He said: “I got here this morning. We didn’t tee off until one but I got here at 10 o’clock and brought a change of clothes and practiced for a couple of hours before going out. I really wanted to come here and see how I felt after coming off such a long journey.
“I needed to hit a lot of balls to get my swing back into some sort of groove and spent a bit of time on the putting green as well. So I am glad to get this round under my belt and shoot something below 70 and hopefully I can go a bit lower tomorrow.
“It was good. I got of to a nice start. I was three under through five, which really helped. I played really solid after that and gave myself a lot of chances.”
Winning his third professional title just a week after such a draining week in Augusta would be a superhuman feat but McIlroy appears determined not go go through the motions.
Apart from fatigue, his biggest challenge will be getting to grips with the slow, grainy greens just days after putting on the superfast surfaces in the Masters.
“The greens are a lot different here than they are in Augusta or the greens I have been putting on the last few weeks,” he said. “They are (slow). It is late in the day as well, so the grain is going to affect them more.
“Hopefully tomorrow morning we will get good surfaces to putt on. Any time you come to Asia the greens are going to be grainy but these are particularly grainy and you have got to really read the grain into these greens.
“(The humidity) was fine. I got here at 10 o’clock this morning, maybe two and a half hours before my tee time. I practiced for a good two hours before I went out to play and brought a change of clothes and had a shower about half an hour before I went out.
“I just wanted to get a rhythm and get back into the swing of things, get used to the conditions and the greens and stuff. I obviously didn’t have that much time to prepare this week but the time that I did have, I spent it well this morning and I felt good when I got out there.”
Noren’s eight under par 64 gave him a two shot lead over Italy’s Matteo Manassero with Peter Lawrie the next best of the Irish after a two under 70.
Ballyclare’s Gareth Maybin was three under after five holes but drove poorly (he hit just four fairways) and racked up five bogeys in a nine-hole stretch in the middle of his round before birdie at the 17th helped him post a one over 73.
Michael Hoey closed with a double bogey seven at the 18th, his second double of the day in an up-and-down 75 that brought four birdies and three bogeys.