Rory McIlroy opened with a magical 64 in the UBS Hong Kong Open to remain on course to deny Luke Donald a transatlantic double.
The US Open champion putted consistently well at Fanling to share the clubhouse lead with David Horsey and Alvaro Quiros on six under after a mixed day for the Irish.
The 22-year old is targeting a top-two finish that would help close the gap on Donald in the Race to Dubai and give him a mathematical chance of preventing the Englishman from adding the European money title to his American crown at next week’s Dubai World Championship.
“It was good. It was very good,” McIlroy said after an immaculate, six-birdie effort in which he missed just one green in regulation. “You know, it was a very solid round of golf. I didn’t make a mistake.
“Six birdies, no bogeys is always a nice way to start the tournament. I just played very solid from the first hole… I think I hit 17 greens. I hit a lot of fairways and just kept giving myself opportunities and I was able to take a few, which was nice.”
Cool, blustery conditions made for tough scoring but McIlroy made it look easy as he went out in two under and then picked up another four birdies on Fanling’s front nine.
“I think first of all, the greens are a lot firmer and a lot faster than they usually are, which obviously makes it tougher to get the ball close to the hole,” he said. “But, you know, the wind today was obviously a big factor. It swirls in these trees. You can feel it one minute downwind and the next minutes right to left and you just really have to trust where the wind is coming from. I was able to do that today.
“I got a couple of gusts where the ball might have went a few yards left or right of where I wanted to, but all in all, I was able to handle the wind pretty well today.”
While his consistency has seen him rise to world No 2, McIlroy admitted earlier this week that he is disappointed that he hasn’t won more regularly so far in his career.
“Just getting myself in the position is a start and there might be a couple of things I can do better to turn those top-fives into wins,” he said. “I have felt this year that I’ve definitely let two or three tournaments slip away from me and that’s something I’m trying to work on so that doesn’t happen.
“As long as I get myself in these positions and start winning more regularly, it becomes a habit and hopefully I’ll do it more often.
“I think it’s a very encouraging sign that I’m getting these top-fives, top-threes regularly and hopefully all of a sudden I’ll get on a run and maybe win a few events in a short space of time. It’s just about consistency and putting yourself up on a Sunday week in and week out. All that experience has to help you in some way.
“There’s still a long way to go in this tournament, I’ve led a lot of tournaments from the first day and I’ve won a couple of them but I realise more than anyone else there’s a long way to go and over 54 holes, I’ll have to play very well to pick up the trophy.”
Defending champion Ian Poulter is not prepared to hand over the trophy just yet, despite opening with a one over 71 alongside McIlroy while two-time former winner Miguel Angel Jimenez is just a shot off the pace after a 65.
McIlroy might be the only player in the field with a chance of winning the money title but there is still a lot of stake this week - especially for the Irish.
The top-60 in the money list on Sunday night will qualify for the Dubai World Championship while the top 118 will keep their cards.
Gareth Maybin (120th) and Damien McGrane (114th) are in the latter category but while McGrane’s fate looks to be out of his hands after a 77, the Ulsterman is flying high in joint fifth after a 66.
Needing to finish in the top half of the field to secure his card, the Ballyclare man made four birdies in six holes after starting on the back nine and them came home with nine solid pars.
Reflecting on his round, he said: “I played okay. I putted well to start with and then got a little tentative coming in. All in all four under is a pretty good score. I didn’t drop a shot all day which was quite pleasing.”
Playing down his grim battle to avoid the Q-School, Maybin said: “It’s the same as every other week - just go out and post the best number.
“It doesn’t change too much to be honest. Keep doing what I’ve done over the years and see where it puts me at the end of the week.
“It’s hardly the end of the world, I don’t think anybody is going to die or anything.”
McGrane should have enough money on the board to keep his card though making the cut would have dispelled all doubts.
But while his race looks run, Padraig Harrington and Peter Lawrie are very much alive in the race to make the top 60.
Ranked 60th, Lawrie opened with a one under 69 to remain on track in a share of 16th with 67th ranked Harrington a shot further back after bogeying the 18th for an even par 70.
Needing a top-seven finish to make the top-60, the Dubliner was one under with one to go after two birdies and two bogeys but after poor drive at the last, he bravely took on the water-protected 18th but found an awkward lie for his third and failed to get up and down.
Michael Hoey, who is 21st in the money list and certain of his place in Dubai, crashed to an eight over 78 that left him near the back of the field.