Indian golfer Jeev Milkha Singh is the surprise joint-leader of the Irish Open at Portrush – as he battles the elements and the McIlroy-Wozniacki partnership in front of sell-out Antrim crowds.
Ulster hero Rory McIlroy trails Singh and Frenchman Gregory Bourdy, the leaders on seven under par, by five shots after two dropped shots in the final three holes.
But girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki is now at his side after an early exit from Wimbledon and will again join the 27,000 sell-out crowd in roaring McIlroy up the leaderboard on Friday.
McIlroy said: “Having everyone pulling for you is something I’ve struggled with at the Irish Open for the last couple of years.
“But this year I’m trying to welcome it and use it to my advantage. Hopefully I can give them something to cheer about over the next three days because the fan support is just phenomenal.
“With the way I played I felt my score could be a lot better but I am not too disappointed. It is still a decent score. I would be great to see the course play a bit tougher but I have to play well tomorrow to get myself into contention for the weekend.”
Padraig Harrington leads the Irish charge on five under par, two off the pace set by Singh and Frenchman Gregory Bourdy, one of the latest starters on the day.
Harrington was out early and made the best of the more favourable morning conditions on a course he regards as his favorite in the world.
With the course set-up for bad weather, Harrington made the most of it without ever really hitting a hot streak.
“I basically holed just one decent putt today — I two-putted the first three par fives for birdies, chipped in on eight and hit it stone dead on three for the others,” said Harrington after six birdies and one bogey.
“So when you do that and shoot three under par it means you weren’t under much stress. It all felt pretty relaxed out there.
“I think today they set up the golf course pretty easy with the weather forecast and why does anybody ever believe an Irish weather forecast?
“Everybody looks at the forecast, but I never do. It just baffles me. Obviously the referees have to do that, but you didn’t feel in any way it was tricked up. You felt like you had a chance on every hole out there.”
Play was suspended for 95 minutes in the afternoon with Darren Clarke actually benefitting from the break of play.
He was three over after eight before play was stopped but stormed back to finish on one under par.
Clarke said: “My score would suggest that the weather delay came at the right time because I went back out saying that I had to make some birdies and I did.
“But I am not here just to make up the numbers. I want to get in there and contend and I had a few other chances on the back nine.
“It could have been better quite easily but all in all, to get back under par after the delay, was a good effort.”
Local hero Graeme McDowell paid the price for a double bogey seven and a lost ball at the 17th as he finished on one over for the day.
The 2010 US Open champion admitted: “I was cruising along nicely at two under par and I had ninety yards to the pint on 17, but got too aggressive.
“I don’t know if I got a bit of a flier from the wet fairways but I hit it over the back into the bushes, lost ball, and I make double bogey on a birdie hole.
“That was a cardinal error, but I steadied the ship nicely after that, and it would have been a lot better if I hadn’t missed short putts on three and five, and three-putted seven.
“But one under is no cause for panic. I’ve got a bit of work to do, but that’s an okay round out of the way and I need three good rounds to have a chance of winning this weekend.
Big Break winner Mark Murphy, the American based Kerryman, is nicely positioned after a three under par 69 as he made the most of his invitation to play at Portrush.
Murphy said: “I was nervous, I won’t lie. It’s tough when you are coming in for week and shooting for your dreams.
“When I won Big Break I was told I might get into tournaments in America on the PGA Tour and the Nationwide Tour and in Europe too. But I have got nothing.
“I know I can compete with everybody and please god now I can finish top 10 here and I won’t need any more invites and we can go on from there.”
Major winner Keegan Bradley meanwhile is in danger of missing the cut after a one over par 73 on day one.