Rory McIlroy (Getty Images)
Rory McIlroy established a two shot lead on the opening day of the WGC-HSBC Champions as the former World Number One set about justifying his pre-tournament predictions at Sheshan International.
McIlroy won five times in 2012, including a second Major title by eight shots, to finish top of the money lists on both side of the Atlantic but has yet to taste victory this season.
Down from first in the Official World Golf Ranking to sixth as a result, McIlroy is 62nd on The Race to Dubai and needs to move into the top 60 this week to have a chance of qualifying for the DP World Tour Championship in November.
McIlroy is less than €4,000 behind Garth Mulroy in 60th place, but will need to win much more than that to feel safe.
The first prize of €1,012,145 would of course take care of everything and McIlroy took confidence from his one shot victory over Tiger Woods in their 18-hole exhibition match at Mission Hills on Monday, insisting he was more likely to win in Shanghai than miss out on a trip to Dubai.
And that did not appear to be an idle boast as the 24 year old opened with a seven under par 65 to lead Wales’ Jamie Donaldson and last week’s BMW Masters champion Gonzalo Fernandez-Castaño by two. US Open Champion Justin Rose, Bubba Watson, Jordan Spieth and Tommy Fleetwood are a shot further back on four under.
“I came here yesterday and talked about how I like this golf course and how I felt like it set up well for me,” said McIlroy. “It felt good to be out there and be in control of my golf ball. I gave myself a lot of looks for birdies.
“It's a great start. It's only one round of golf but it's definitely the way I wanted and needed to start this week, keeping in mind that I obviously want to play myself into Dubai and try to pick up my first win of the season, as well.
“It felt pretty good out there. I let a couple of putts get away from me, a couple of the downhill ones, but I was able to hole ones coming back, which was good.
“I've tried to stay patient the entire season, and I know that if I believe that I'm working on the right things and I am working on the right things, then things will start to fall into place sooner or later.
“It's obviously frustrating when you've had a couple of seasons previously where you have had success, and not being able to emulate that; there's times where you definitely get frustrated. I wouldn't say that I was restless in terms of trying to get a win this season, because I think that the best way to approach it is to stay patient and not to force the issue too much.”
Starting from the tenth with a birdie, McIlroy gave the shot straight back at the next but also picked up shots at the 12th, 14th and 16th.
A long birdie putt was left inches short on the par three 17th but McIlroy made no such mistake from four feet on the par five 18th to reach the turn in 32, before another birdie on the first took the former World Number One into a share of the lead on five under.
McIlroy moved into the outright lead with a birdie on the par five second and although he missed from six feet to double his advantage on the third, he holed from similar distance on the next to avoid a three-putt bogey.
Open Champion Phil Mickelson emerged to join McIlroy at the top of the leaderboard with his sixth birdie of the day on the short par four seventh, the left-hander driving close to the green and producing a trademark pitch to three feet.
But in the group ahead, McIlroy holed from seven feet for a birdie on the par five eighth to regain top spot on seven under par, and Mickelson dropped four shots on the eighth moments later to undo much of his good work.
After seeing his third shot come up short of the flag and roll down a bank into water guarding the green, Mickelson took a penalty drop and then span his fifth shot from the drop zone back into the same hazard.
The left-hander finally found the putting surface with his seventh shot and two-putted, but compounded his misery by hitting his approach to the ninth into the water to the right of the green.
That led to a bogey five and meant Mickelson had to settle for an opening 71, one under par.