Ireland’s quintet of challengers trooped home in world ranking order after the opening round of the US PGA Championship at Kiawah Island.
World No 3 Rory McIlroy rediscovered the power of a smile to finish the day tied for second, taking advantage of a defenceless Ocean Course to card a sparkling 67 and finish his day just a shot behind pacesetter Carl Pettersson on five under.
Graeme McDowell battled his way to a 68 with Padraig Harrington again denied on the greens in a 70 - though he did hole two huge putts - as Darren Clarke posted a 73 and Michael Hoey a six over 78.
Holywood starlet McIlroy, 23, showed that his recent “slump” was nothing but a blip as he took advantage of soft, windless conditions and followed Dave Stockton’s advice to “have fun and enjoy it and smile.”
It’s advice he has heard upmpteen times yet it appears to have stuck this time, possibly because the early morning conditions he encountered on the Ocean Course suited his game down to the ground.
He knows that tougher times lie ahead this week and that the wind will blow, which his why he was delighted to take advantage and post five birdies on an immaculate card.
“Hitting balls on the range this morning, there was completely no wind,” McIlroy said. “It was flat calm and I really thought that I had to take advantage of the conditions.”
The Ulsterman has made promising starts in other majors this year and faded away. This time he believes he can stick around.
“I’m expecting this to be the best day of the week,” said McIlroy, who could go back to world No 1 with a second win in seven starts. “I think everyone is. So we know that there’s going to be a bit of wind coming in and maybe a bit of bad weather. It’s just something that you’re going to have to deal with and I’m just happy that I got off to a great start. As I said, I have a great platform to go from.
“I’ve had my fair share of starts where I’ve started well and I’ve had a couple of bad rounds and stuff. I think that’s just golf. You get weeks where you’re feeling good and you’re playing well, and you’re just able to keep rolling and continue the momentum from one day to the next and hopefully that’s one of these weeks.”
McDowell made up for three bogeys, including two sixes on par-fives, by notching seven birdies in 68 that featured a couple of his trademark long bombs on the greens.
Tied for sixth after a round compiled in the tougher afternoon conditions, he said: “Yeah, good round of golf, obviously. Apart from a couple of sloppy sixes that I made out there, I made 6 on 7 from just off the edge of the green in two, hit a bad chip and a threeputt and made 6 from just short of the 11th green.
“I had 100 yards flag there and spun it off the front and didn’t get it upanddown. But generally very happy with my ballstriking today, hit a lot of fairways, hit a lot of solid iron shots.
“I know the guys got nine fairly calm holes this morning, but the breeze came up this afternoon and made it a decent test, but the golf course remained fairly playable, and there was a score out there if you could control the ball well.
“So very happy with that, good start, and get out there tomorrow morning and perhaps we can play it in slightly more benign conditions, just nice to get off to a fast start.”
One under to the turn, McDowell birdied the 10th, bogeyed the 11th but then sank a 40 footer at the 12th and followed that with further gains at the 16th and 18th.
He has played in the final group in the last two majors and failed to close out a victory but believes he’s in the kind of form that could see him mount another challenge.
On a day when Tiger Woods shot a morning 69, McDowell was pleased with the way he compiled his afternoon 68.
“I’m really, really happy the way I’m swinging it this year,” he said after coming home in 33. “My coach Pete Cowen has got me beat into reasonable shape. I understand my swing, I’m flighting the ball well. Worked very hard on my short game this year, and my putter is starting to heat up again.
“I’m just hitting the ball fairly solid, happy to get off to a good start again today. You know, these major championships, there’s no doubt getting in contention early, getting the juices flowing is key, and that was nice today because I got off to a slow ish start. It was a good, strong back nine.
“I was aware that the scoring was particularly good this morning. I knew there wasn’t much wind out there. You can’t react, though. You still have to stick to your game plan. You can’t go chasing these pin positions.
“Some of them are fairly well tucked out there. But I’d get my strategy really was, especially in the major championships, is just to be extra patient, be as patient as I possibly can.
“I know there were scoring opportunities on this golf course, and it was just a case of staying out of trouble, hitting smart shots and using my putter to good effect, and I really putted well today.”
Harrington was also in the afternoon wave alongside Davis Love (72) and a wayward Phil Mickelson - who hit just four fairways yet still managed a miraculous 73 thanks to his imperious short game and putting.
The 40-year old Dubliner got off to an ideal start when he hit the front of the par-five second in two and drained a 70 footer for eagle.
He bogeyed the next, however, missed a few chances and then dropped another shot at the ninth before picking up birdies from 10 feet at the 12th and 45 feet at the 15th coming home.
“Happy with the score in itself, but could have been a few better,” said Harrington, who gave the impression of a man who knows that his game is close to falling into place very soon.
He must happen this week if he is to win and clinch his seventh Ryder Cup cap. But he admitted that he still has issues to resolve.
“I need to trust my putting now, and my chipping.” said the 2008 champion, who spooked himself by how well he was hitting the ball on the range. “I’ve been working on my chipping and putting quite a bit, and it’s just not quite there as of yet.
“It certainly wasn’t bad today in any shape or form, but I’d love to get out of my own way and let it happen on the short game as well as the long game. I hit a lot of nice shots on the back nine there when I settled down.
“But 70 is a reasonable score. I did leave a number of shots out there, and I think it could have been better, but I holed two long putts in the round, and they were bonuses.
“I really didn’t get myself in trouble all day, a couple of dropped shots and then really the par5s I left a few one or two actually that could have been better. As I said, it was a little bit windy starting out, so 70 is not a bad return.”
Clarke played just ahead of McIlroy in the morning and his round was as up and down as his moods.
After a par at the 10th, he double bogeyed the par five 11th, birdied the 15th and 17th but then bogeyed three holes in a row from the second before repairing most of the damage with an eagle three at the seventh.
His 73 left him just inside the cut mark but it looks like it will be a short week for Michael Hoey, who has struggled with his game recently.
The 33-year old from Belfast followed a bogey at the 11th and a double bogey at the par-five 16th with back to back birdies at the 17th and 18th to turn in just one over.
But he stumbled home in 41 for a 78 that will take a lot of undoing this morning, even if conditions are calm again.