Rory McIlroy makes impressive, pain-free return; one off the lead
Rory McIlroy speaks to the Golf Channel after his 68

Rory McIlroy speaks to the Golf Channel after his 68

Rory McIlroy is used to the lofty heights of the game and the altitude of Mexico City appeared to do him little harm as he showed his power, flair and touch by carding an opening three-under-par 68 to finish just a shot off the lead in the WGC-Mexico Championship.

Needing a win and help from Dustin Johnson to regain the world No 1 ranking, the Ulsterman's recent intensive bout of injury-enforced putting practice generally paid off at a tight and tree-lined Chapultepec Golf Club.

While he was struggling with a minor stomach ailment, the Holywood star showed no visible ill effects from the rib injury that kept him out of the game for 44 days as he made an eagle, two birdies and just one bogey to share seventh place behind leaders Ross Fisher, Jimmy Walker, Jon Rahm, Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood and Ryan Moore.

“The rib is great,” said McIlroy, who is tied with Matt Kuchar, Pat Perez, Sergio Garcia, Chris Wood, Fabrizio Zanotti and Thomas Pieters. 

“It's great how it has responded over the past few weeks, ramping up the practice and then playing my first full competitive round out there today, I didn't feel it at all. It's all positive in that regard.

"I probably could have played Honda last week but I wasn't going to know how my body would react after four days in a row.

"I thought this a great place to start with four guaranteed rounds. I am taking next week off just to see how everything reacts and responds.

“ It was the logical place to come back. It would have been great to sleep in my own bed last week but I stayed patient and the week longer will definitely pay off.”

Not only did he look pain-free, McIlroy hit nine tee shots over 300 yards on an old-fashioned but fascinating 7,330-yard track that requires as much strategy as straight hitting.

Even allowing for a 15 percent boost in distance due to Mexico City's 2,250m (7,700 ft) elevation, McIroy was impressive from the tee, solid on the greens and tidy with his short game.

He wasn't always straight but if there were any lingering worries about how well the stress fracture in his ribs has healed, he dismissed them with a majestic eagle three at his 15th hole.

The 27-year old bombed a 368-yard drive uphill— the longest drive of the day on the hole to that point by 20 yards — on the 615-yard, sixth.

Left with a blind, 264-yard second shot over a lake to a two-tiered green, he didn't think twice and rifled a sky-high long-iron that finished 28 feet from the stick.

McIlroy gave a mini fist pump as the eagle putt disappeared and he moved to within a shot of early pace-setter Walker on three-under-par.

Given how much practice he has been doing on his putting during his injury layoff, the four-time major winner was pleasingly clinical on the greens, using the blade just 26 times as he hit 14 greens in regulation.

His lone bogey came at the fifth (his 14th), where he three-putted from close to 60 feet.

But he wasn’t the only one to have trouble.

Playing partners Johnson (70) and Hideki Matsuyama (72) both had their struggles with the blade, taking 30 and 33 putts respectively.

World No 1 Johnson started birdie-birdie but lost his confidence with the putter and had a string of lip-outs, missing four putts between three and five feet on the poa annua greens. 

Despite that, the US Open champion still made six birdies to finish the day in red figures.

Starting on the back nine, McIlroy birdied the par-five 11th from 14 feet, then saved par from six feet at the 13th, 14th and 17th before missing another putt of the same distance for birdie at the 388-yard 18th, where he had just 49 yards for his approach.

He was far more impressive on his homeward nine, missing just one green in regulation.

At the  325-yard first, he drove to the edge to the green and made an eight-footer for birdie, then missed a couple of chances before that outrageous eagle at the sixth.

Meanwhile, Open champion Henrik Stenson from Sweden withdrew with a suspected stomach virus after playing 11 holes in three-over-par.