Rory McIlroy admits he gets goosebumps just thinking about winning the Irish Open but he’s got his work cut out to beat Masters champ Danny Willett.
As McIlroy matched his lowest ever Irish Open round with an effortless five under 67, the Rotherham ace leads him by two after coming within a whisker of matching the course record by blasting an eight-birdie 65.
Proud that he’s managed to break his Irish Open hoodoo and silence the critics who say he lacks focus, McIlroy said: “I thought I played very well and gave myself lots of chances.
“I tried to really focus on being 100 per cent ready whenever the gun went off there on the first tee and felt like I've done that pretty well for the most part.
“I hit the ball well from tee-to-green, took a few of my chances and basically did everything I wanted to there and I feel like 5-under is a fair reflection of how I played today.”
Callum Shinkwin and Jaco Van Syl shared third place on four under par, one shot clear of defending champion Søren Kjeldsen, two-time Major winner Martin Kaymer and Ross Fisher, who all signed for rounds of 69.
McIlroy’s only mistake was a three putt at the 14th, where he ran his 15 foot birdie chance three feet past and missed the return.
But after a phenomenal display of ball-striking that saw him miss just one green in regulation and hit a handful of massive drives, he’s dreaming of adding his national open title to his four major wins.
Asked if that would be sweet, he beamed: “It would be. I just get goosebumps thinking about it, so I can't really think about it too much now.
“To win here, no matter what the circumstances are — whether I've won the week before or whether I haven't won in six months — to win The Irish Open would be something that would be very special.
“I’ve got off to a great start towards doing that this week. Just have to keep playing the way I did today.”
Asked the last time he had goosebumps, he joked: “When Seville scored last night.”
It’s no wonder he was in good form,
Of the 30 players who broke par, just 12 came from the morning wave which meant that he took advantage of the best of the target-golf conditions
But it was still damp and blustery and McIlroy handled it beautifully, two putting the fourth from 40 feet for birdie before reducing the 478-yard sixth to a 360 yard drive, a sand wedge and 10 foot putt to go two under.
He then rolled in a six footer after another 355 yard bomb down the ninth, two putted the par-five 10th for another birdie and then birdied the 13th to go five under.
Willett was burning up the course in the group behind but as he raced to seven under through 14, McIlroy stumbled briefly.
The world No 3 three putted the 14th, missing a three footer for par, but came back to birdie the last with ease.
Ominously for his rivals, McIlroy felt he could have gone lower, insisting: “I think there was more out there. I thought it was a very comfortable 67.
“I got to go 5-under par after 13 with a couple par 5s to come in, had a bit of a blip on 14 with a three-putt, but apart from that, I felt like I played pretty well.”
Willett was delighted with his round, which saw him birdied the third, seventh and ninth before picking up four shots in his first five holes on th back nine.
Even after a bogey at the 16th, he came back o birdie the last and hopes to have a weekend duel with Mcilroy for the title, especially after taking just 23 putts.
Delighted with the support he got from the Irish galleries, Willett said: “Support is massive. Just shows the players they have churned out over the years. And it's been brilliant,
“You get clapped onto tees, clapped onto greens. Brilliant, like I say, even if you're playing bad, you can't not enjoy it out here.”
On a possible title duel with McIlroy down the stretch in Sunday, he said: “That would be good fun. Rory has a tough one this week hosting but he’s No 3in the world and a fantastic player with al the time support.”
McIlroy is certainly up for a war with Willett but he’s not getting ahead of himself.
He said: “Having Danny here is a huge help, and him playing like he did today, and me playing like I did, it would be great if we could have a battle over the weekend and get the crowds to flock in.
"It would be one that I'd be looking forward to.”
As for the rest of the Irish, Graeme McDowell was two over after an early double bogey at the third but battled back to shoot a one under 71 thanks mainly to an eagle three at the 10th and a birdie at the last.
G-Mac said: ”I’m very happy with minus one. One of those rounds that could have slipped away after the start. Some good scoring up at the top of the leaderboard obviously from Danny and Rory and guys like that.
“I think two or three solid rounds and one decent one will really compete here, and there’s a lot of golf to play."
Paul McGinley and rookie Gavin Moynihan were thrilled to battle to level par 72s as Ryder Cup skipper Darren Clarke joined Peter Lawrie and West Waterford’s Gary Hurley with a 73.
As Ruaidhri McGee and Kevin Phelan struggled to 75s, it was an even bigger battle for three time major winner Padraig Harrington as he slipped to a 76.
The 2007 Irish Open winner started with a birdie at the 10th but triple bogeyed the 11th after tree trouble and a three putt.
Harrington joked: “It would have been okay if it was a V-par round. I got a bad break on my second, stuck my second shot right against a tree beside the green and made a seven.
“I could have scored a lot better, I could have found four or five shots in the round no problem and be standing here saying, ‘This is a nice thing'."
On his chances of making the cut, he said: “I don't know the forecast, please tell me it's going to rain.”
Told it was due to rain this afternoon when he got out, he said: “Then I’m done. It's straightforward. That's what happens. I've had the good side of the draws, I've won tournaments from the wrong side of the draw.
“It's not like I'm not going to tee up every shot tomorrow and try my hardest. That’s it, such is life.”
While Neil O Briain shot a fine 74 late in the day, it was a miserable day for the Irish PGA pros with David Higgins (76), Colm Moriarty (77), Damian Mooney (77), Brendan McGovern (80) and Eamonn Brady (88) all well down the leaderboard.
As for the amateurs, Jack Hume had "a terrible" warm up in the rain and found water twice — at the sixth and 16th where he went for the green with his three wood in three after a poor drive.
After a 77, Hume headed for the range and said: "I feel a lot more comfortable now. I'm pretty confident for tomorrow."
Irish Amateur Open winner Colm Campbell is the best of three after a 75 while John Ross Galbraith had an eagle at the 18th in an otherwise gruelling 78.