JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Rory McIlroy made an impressive start to 2017 with a new set of clubs, shooting a 5-under 67 Thursday in the first round of the SA Open to put himself a stroke off the lead.
Making his first appearance at the tournament since 2008, McIlroy rolled in seven birdies – including four straight from Nos. 14-17 after starting at the 10th at Glendower Golf Club.
South African players Trevor Fisher Jr. and Keith Horne shared the lead after rounds of 66.
With Nike announcing last year it would no longer be making golf clubs and balls, the second-ranked McIlroy has been testing out new woods, irons and a putter from other manufacturers and said his new bag “is working pretty well.”
“I’m sure as I get accustomed to them – I mean, it’s nice to play my first competitive round and play like this – I’ll get even more dialed in, and chop and change a little bit,” McIlroy said.
The Northern Irishman is the standout player in Johannesburg this week, making an earlier-than-usual start to his golfing year as a favor to Ernie Els, the South African great and the host of the SA Open. The galleries were drawn to McIlroy despite his early tee time of 7:10 a.m. local time and he responded with an adventurous round that included a 392-yard drive on the first hole, drawing gasps from spectators.
A 20-foot putt on No. 17 completed his four-hole run of birdies before McIlroy rolled in an 8-footer on No. 2 to move to 5 under. Poor approach shots led to bogeys on the fourth and fifth, but he replied with a tee shot on the par-3 sixth that stopped on the slope in the middle of the green and rolled back down to two feet, for a tap-in birdie.
He was in the rough on his final three holes but scrambled to par Nos. 7 and 9 and made a birdie on No. 8.
“I gave myself chances, felt I missed a few but I played well,” McIlroy said. “It was a bit adventurous on the back nine, scrambled a bit and did my bit to salvage a few holes.”
South African players have won 13 of the last 19 editions of the SA Open, and five of the top seven on Thursday were home players.
Fisher Jr., also starting at No. 10 in the morning, made seven birdies in eight holes from the 12th to the first and parred his way home. Horne joined his compatriot in the lead with birdies on Nos. 16 and 17 coming home, continuing his good form from the Alfred Dunhill Championship in December where he finished tied for 11th.
Three more South Africans, Thomas Aiken, Dean Burmester and Jbe Kruger, were tied with McIlroy after 67s, along with European Tour rookie Jordan Smith of England.
Els and defending champion Brandon Stone started with 74s. Six-time major champion Nick Faldo was at 2-under 70.