Defending champion Rory McIlroy faces a battle to make the halfway cut after labouring to a level-par 72 in the first round of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open.
On a day when 105 of the 156-strong field broke par, tournament host McIlroy could only manage two birdies and two bogeys to end the day eight shots off the lead shared by American Daniel Im and France’s Benjamin Hebert.
And playing partners Jon Rahm and Hideki Matsuyama rubbed salt into McIlroy’s wounds with rounds of 65 and 67 respectively as the majority of the field took advantage of almost ideal conditions.
“Selflessly it’s great to see Jon and Hideki up there, but selfishly I want to be alongside them and it felt like I was going backwards just shooting level par,” said McIlroy, who made an early exit from his home event for three years running before his dramatic victory at the K Club in 2016.
“I’m pretty frustrated because it felt like the course was there to shoot a really low score. I could not get anything going and hopefully I can get out there tomorrow morning and make some birdies.”
McIlroy, who used three different putters in three rounds on his previous start, had to watch Rahm produce what he described as a “putting clinic”, the world number 11 carding six birdies, an eagle and a solitary bogey.
The 22-year-old only turned professional in June last year and is playing just his second regular European Tour event, but said: “To win here would be amazing. Rory’s event, the Irish Open... to win this early would be unbelievable.”
Flawless rounds of 64 from Im and Hebert established the course record at Portstewart and gave the unlikely duo - with a combined world ranking of 796 - a one-shot lead over Rahm, Oliver Fisher and Matthew Southgate.