Rory McIlroy gets off to a fast start at the BMW Championship

The Irish players - men and women - struggle in the ISPS Handa World Invitational

The smell of the greenbacks is a powerful motivation, and following a two hour weather delay in the BMW Championship at Olympia Fields outside Chicago, nobody got moving better than Rory McIlroy who shifted into gear with a sense of purpose.

Of destiny too? McIlroy’s final act of a well-crafted round was to hole a six footer for par on the closing hole, which gave him a bogey-free 65 as he got off to a fast start in the $20 million tournament.

Matt Fitzpatrick – one of those on the outside looking in as far as making it to next week’s megabucks Tour Championship for the FedEx Cup – made a significant move in his bid to gatecrash the tour’s finale.

Fitzpatrick, last year’s US Open champion, but with only one top-10 since winning the RBC Heritage back in April, shot a four-under-par 66 to share the clubhouse lead with Sahith Theegala in taking advantage of soft, receptive greens in the windy conditions.


But it was McIlroy, with sights of his own on the FedEx Cup as he seeks to lift it for a fourth time in his career, who used his driver as a powerful weapon in flying fairway bunkers to leave gap wedge and wedge approaches more often than not into the greens in setting up his run of birdies. He only hit four of 14 fairways but it didn’t matter whether he was on the short grass or in the rough, as he only had short clubs in hand for the approaches.

McIlroy was steady over the opening run of holes, starting with six straight pars among them a couple of genuine birdie chances. Once his putter got working, though, the world number two kicked into gear with birdies from 12 feet on the seventh and 14 feet on the ninth to turn in 33, two under.

Further birdies followed on the 10th, from 10 feet, and the 15th, from five feet, and then, after pulling his drive wildly down the left of the 17th and narrowly evading trees with his low, punched approach shot which skipped through a greenside bunker before nestling in the rough behind the putting surface, McIlroy cheekily chipped-in for birdie to move to five-under and claim the outright clubhouse lead.

For Fitzpatrick, who went into the tournament in 40th on the FedEx Cup standings and needing to get inside the top-30 to earn a ticket to the Tour Championship, there was an assuredness from tee to green and then with putter in hand in carding his 66.

How pleased was Fitzpatrick with his work? “Really, really, really, really, really, really pleased,” admitted the Englishman, having turned a corner last week in the St Jude Classic with his driving which had been his Achilles heel through much of the summer.

“I would just say overall my driving has not been where I want it. Not hitting enough fairways, and you just can’t do that out here. For me who’s always been relying on good driving and been a strength of my game hitting fairways to not, it just makes it difficult,” insisted Fitzpatrick.

Theegala, another of those on the outside of the top-30, marginally so in his case at 31st, was thrilled with his opening effort: “Man, I hit it really, really well, probably one of my best ball-striking rounds on tour.”

So much for home comforts and all of that, as the Irish players in the ISPS Handa World Invitational – a tri-sanctioned event on the DP World Tour for the men and on both the LPGA Tour and LET for the women – struggled in the opening round of the unique tournament played at Galgorm Castle in Co Antrim and Castlerock in Co Derry.

Leona Maguire, the best-ranked player in the field, was the best Irish player after the first round. The 28-year-old Cavan golfer shot a level par 73 – three birdies, three bogeys – at Castlerock which left her in tied-33rd, four strokes adrift of a quartet of co-leaders. Stephanie Meadow started out with a 74, in tied-62nd.

The four leaders of the women’s tournament all played at Castlerock, which proved to be the easier of the opening day’s scoring: Switzerland’s Kim Metraux, England’s Gabriella Cowley, Sweden’s Elinor Sudow and Australia’s Karis Davidson all signed for opening 69s.

In the men’s tournament, played simultaneously over the same courses for the opening two rounds, England’s Dan Brown took advantage of the favourable weather conditions at Castlerock to sign for a seven-under-par 64 which gave him a two-stroke lead over a quartet of players which included Alex Fitzpatrick, brother of Matt.

It proved to be a hugely disappointing day for the 11 Irish players in the field, with Jonathan Caldwell – who has shown decent form of late on the Challenge Tour – proving best of the home contingent after signing for a level par 71 at Castlerock which left him in tied-43rd.

Tom McKibbin, winner of the European Open earlier in the summer, had a nightmare start to the tournament, shooting a 78 at Galgorm Castle and facing a huge uphill battle if he is to survive the cut.

Philip Reid

Philip Reid

Philip Reid is Golf Correspondent of The Irish Times