Graeme McDowell might have four-putted the 18th hole for a double-bogey but in matching an impressive Paul Dunne with a four-under 66 the Portrush man showed he's not far away from getting back where he belongs in the game.
From a career high of fourth in the world seven years ago, the 37-year-old is now 137th. But despite his hiccup on the last —one of many low blows he has suffered this season— his six-birdie opening round in the opening round of the British Masters supported by Sky Sports. will give him confidence as he battles to get back to golf's top table.
Without a top-10 all year and coming off a run of six missed cuts in his last seven starts, McDowell was fourth in this event last year and badly needs a good week.
He's tied for 13th with Dunne, who is bidding to finish the season strongly and bridge the €270,000 gap that separates him from the top 20 in the Race to Dubai who will clinch spots in next season's World Golf Championships.
A win would solve a lot of problems for Dunne, who is 34th in the money list after an excellent season and showed his class again yesterday with five birdies followed by an irritating bogey four at the 221-yard finishing hole at Close House in Newcastle
The Irish duo are just three shots behind Englishman Tyrrell Hatton and South African George Coetzee, who shot seven-uner 63s in front of 18,368 fans.
Five players are one shot back on six under par, including Spaniard Alvaro Quiros, who already has a European Tour victory to his name in 2017, while tournament host Lee Westwood is three shots off the pace in a share of 13th place after a bogey-free round of 66.
Four-time Major Champion McIlroy opened with a three-under-par round 67 to share 24th in his penultimate tournament before taking a break to recover from an ongoing rib injury while Shane Lowry again showed flashes of brilliance.
The Offaly man made four birdies and might have had more but also suffered a double-bogey six as he signed for a 68 that leaves him tied 39th.
“I felt like I played solid enough. I didn't do anything great, but I didn't do anything really bad either," McIlroy said.
"Probably a fair reflection of how the day went. I got lucky on the fourth hole. I hit it left of the green and thought it was in the hazard, but it stayed up and was able to get that up-and-down for par.
“I've been seeing some positives over my game in the last week as I've practised. My iron play is starting to get better, wedge play is starting to get better, those are the things that I've really struggled with this year, and I feel like they are going in the right direction.
“It's fantastic. This golf tournament, it's got a great support from its inception a couple of years ago, and this is the first time I've played. I think this part of the world, they haven't seen a top-class golf tournament like this for a long time and they have come out in their numbers and it's great to see.
“I'll play Dunhill next week, and I won't tee it up again until 2018. Basically to give myself a bit of time to recover from this injury that's been bothering me all year.
"It's been a big year in my life away from the golf course this year, and I'm not saying that that had an effect on what happened on it, I feel like the injury held me back from practising.
"But if I can't take time off at this part of the year, when can I take any time off.”
British Masters supported by Sky Sports, Close House Golf Club (Par 70)
63 G Coetzee (RSA), T Hatton (Eng),
64 M Korhonen (Fin), A Quiros (Esp), C Hanson (Eng), M Ilonen (Fin), R Karlberg (Swe),
65 J Carlsson (Swe), L Slattery (Eng), A Chesters (Eng), J Stalter (Fra), G Storm (Eng),
66 Graeme McDowell (Nir), I Poulter (Eng), M Fitzpatrick (Eng), A Dodt (Aus), R Karlsson (Swe), Paul Dunne (Irl), M Kaymer (Ger), D Brooks (Eng), L Westwood (Eng), K Aphibarnrat (Tha), F Fritsch (Ger)
67 G Havret (Fra), R Ramsay (Sco), L Haotong (Chn), R Fisher (Eng), D Fichardt (RSA), C Wood (Eng), W Ormsby (Aus), G Stal (Fra), N Fasth (Swe), R Gouveia (Por), J Scrivener (Aus), J Walters (RSA), F Aguilar (Chi), L Bjerregaard (Den), Rory McIlroy (Nir),
68 J Lagergren (Swe), J Wang (Kor), M Foster (Eng), S Jamieson (Sco), M Carlsson (Swe), A Sullivan (Eng), P Larrazábal (Esp), Shane Lowry (Irl), P Waring (Eng), D Lingmerth (Swe), P Angles (Esp) ,, R Rock (Eng), G Bourdy (Fra),
69 D Horsey (Eng), S Heisele (Ger), B Rumford (Aus), S Gallacher (Sco), M Lorenzo-Vera (Fra), A Hansen (Den), N Bertasio (Ita), R Sterne (RSA), E Pepperell (Eng), L Canter (Eng), M Wallace (Eng), D Willett (Eng), B Stone (RSA), A Levy (Fra), T Jaidee (Tha), D Frittelli (RSA), A Wall (Eng), B Dredge (Wal),
70 O Fisher (Eng), J Campillo (Esp), B Wiesberger (Aut), N Elvira (Esp), A Otaegui (Esp), S Manley (Wal), J Edfors (Swe), J Morrison (Eng), H Porteous (RSA), S Lee (Kor), S Gros (Fra), E De La Riva (Esp), A Rai (Eng), M Siem (Ger), M Warren (Sco), T Lewis (Eng), B Hebert (Fra), A Cañizares (Esp), E Molinari (Ita), J Donaldson (Wal), J Olazábal (Esp), S Garcia (Esp),
71 D Drysdale (Sco), J Lima (Por), R Langasque (Fra), D Stewart (Sco), B Ritthammer (Ger), S Soderberg (Swe), S Walker (Eng), A Noren (Swe), J Fahrbring (Swe), S Dyson (Eng), M Jiménez (Esp), J Smith (Eng), N Kimsey (Eng), P Hanson (Swe), J Quesne (Fra), R Williams (am) (Eng),
72 P Peterson (USA), T Aiken (RSA), V Dubuisson (Fra), S Chawrasia (Ind), N Colsaerts (Bel), L Jensen (Den), R Jacquelin (Fra), S Hend (Aus), R Bland (Eng), D Perrier (Fra), M Cort (Eng), R Coles (Eng), D Im (USA), J Lupton (Eng),
73 A Knappe (Ger), S Brazel (Aus), W Ashun (Chn), M Manassero (Ita), C Paisley (Eng), N Holman (Aus), D Burmester (RSA),
74 R Knox (Sco), M Fraser (Aus).