Banner round - World Cup 58 for McIlroy and McDowell

Top professional golfers don’t have to carry their golf bags but those born in the six counties of Ulster that form part of the United Kingdom try hard to leave the political baggage in the locker room.

As James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus said in Ulysses, “I fear those big words which make us so unhappy.”

Flags and symbols are wielded like weapons on a politically divided island and a cocktail of sport and politics is usually explosive.

In China today Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell produced an explosion of red figures under the tricolour.

They teed it up for Ireland in the Omega Mission Hills World Cup until the Irish tricolour and shot the second lowest fourball round in the 55-year history of the event - a 14 under par 58 giving them a three strokes lead over Argentina. 

The next time they play together could be for Europe in the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor.

“I just want to say one thing: I hope Monty was watching,” joked McIlroy. “It’s the best score I have ever had. We got off to a great start and birdied the holes we had to on the front nine where there are three par fives. And from there we kept it going and birdied the holes other teams weren’t getting birdies on.

“We didn’t have any mistakes and we had a look at two birdie chances on most holes and most of the time we took one of them. It was great team play and no one really put each other under pressure and I think that showed in the way the scores went.”

Playing for Ireland is nothing new for them. In their amateur days, they teed it up under the tricolour in the Home International matches against England, Scotland and Wales as well as in the European or World Amateur Team Championships. 

That’s because Northern Ireland is not recognised by the R&A and men’s golf in Ireland is run on a 32-county basis by the Golfing Union of Ireland.

Of course the European Tour labels players along international soccer lines with the 12 Irish golfers on the circuit separated into the Ireland or Northern Ireland camps.

McIlroy was born in Belfast 1989 and saw virtually nothing of the sectarian strife that tore the city apart in the 1960s, 70s and 80s while McDowell is ten years older and more sensitive to the incendiary nature of “political” remarks.

Naturally, the subject came up in China and McDowell eloquently explained: "It's obviously a very sensitive issue. I'm not really sure of the history of why certain sports are two separate teams and golf is an all-Ireland team.

"When I grew up I wanted to play golf for Ireland and I wanted to wear the green blazer.

"I hate what politics has done to the country really, in a way, you want to get as far away as possible from that. It's an honour to represent Ireland and an honour to represent your country doing anything."

Asked again later, McDowell said: “We are both Northern Irish obviously but golf is an all Ireland sport and always has been. Don’t know the reason for that but I grew up wanting to be an Irish international golfer and I am sure Rory did too. Now that we are professionals, playing in the World Cup for Ireland is what we want to do without being political or religious about the whole deal. None of us are that way inclined. We are just happy to be here and representing our country.”  

McIlroy lost some fans south of the border when he said during the US PGA this year that he would love to represent “Team GB” if golf made the Olympic Games some day. But he appeared to temper those remarks at the World Cup.

"I think golf's inclusion in the Olympics has been great for the sport," he said. "It would be a great honour to play in the Olympics one day, for whoever that may be."

Whatever about issues of identity, McIlroy showed no ill effects from his Race to Dubai reverse at the hands of Lee Westwood last week as he dovetailed brilliantly with McDowell for an eagle, 12 birdies and just five pars.

"I got over it by the time I woke up on Monday morning to be honest," he said of his failure to become the second youngest European No 1 since Seve Balleseros

"I'm looking back at it now, and I've had a great season. I mean, it's been brilliant. It's been a great, almost like a breakthrough, year. Twelve top-fives, a win, played well in the majors and everything.

"This was a week obviously I wanted to do well because I'm playing with Graeme and it would be great to win together. It would be awesome."

McDowell described McIlroy as a phenomenon, joking that they simply don’t play for money in practice any more “because he beats me all the time."

In the first round, they made the perfect team and having won for Europe at foursomes in the Seve Trophy in Paris just a few weeks ago, they look certain to be involved in the shake up.

“A 58 in any format it is pretty good over 18 holes,” McIlroy said of a round that featured matching nines of 29 strokes. “We both gave ourselves looks at birdie on basically every hole. Never put each other under pressure. Just played really well today and took our chances when we had them and it is great to get off to a really good start like this.” 

McDowell added: “It is not hard to dovetail when both balls are in play all the time. Very rarely did one player feel any type of pressure because their partner was out of position. We were giving ourselves look at at everything all day and that was our goal. We made a mess of 14, both hit it through the back, but we made our par and promised ourselves that we would give ourselves two looks at everything on the way in. 

“We finished eagle, birdie, birdie, birdie. It was a great way to finish the day. It is a great start but we need to continue playing like this. There are some great teams here this week and plenty of guys who can make a but of a run. But foursomes is the more a difficult format and we will be looking to go out and play tomorrow like we did today.”

The highlight of their round was an eagle three at the 15th 

“I hit probably my two best shots of the day, a nice drive and hybrid to about 10 feet,” McDowell said. “And my partner decides to roll one in from 40 feet in front of me. But he can do that any time he likes I am very happy to rake up 10 foot eagle putts because my partner is already in. That’s fine with me.”

The pair clearly enjoy each other’s company and see now reason why they can’t keep it going.

“We really seemed to  bring the best out of each other on the golf course,” McIlroy said. “What’s not to enjoy when you go out and shoot 58?

“Even when things mightn’t go so well on the golf course, you still have a laugh about it and it’s no big deal. It definitely helps in this format when it is just the two of you in a particular team. It would be a different if we were playing a big team event and there were 10 or 12 players on the team. Because it is just the two of you, you go out and enjoy it and the team does gel together well on the golf course, like ours does. 

“It is very special to be able to play for your country in a World Cup and play alongside a very good friend. It is fantastic and I’d love to be able to put my name on that trophy with Graeme. If we can keep playing like we have today there is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to do that. 

“Our foursomes record has been pretty good in the past the couple of times that we have played. We are going to talk through the strategy tonight over dinner. If we can go out and hit the shots like we did today, I don’t see that much trouble for us. It is a matter of finding out who is more comfortable on some tee shots and who will hit the approach shots into certain holes. Apart from that you just go out and play your game.”