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long shot Rory McIlroy a long way off as he struggles at Wells Fargo but Darren Clarke leads in search of first senior Major

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Rory McIlroy waits to putt on the third hole

Rory McIlroy waits to putt on the third hole

Rory McIlroy waits to putt on the third hole

Rory McIlroy showed he's still a long way from his best when he had to work hard to grind out a one-over 72 in the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow.

While he's seen Pete Cowen only intermittently since they started working together a month ago, the Holywood star (32) struggled with a two-way miss from the tee, hitting just four fairways at a venue where he's won twice and racked up another five top-10s in just nine starts.

He turned in one-under but never looked comfortable and bogeyed the 11th and three-putted the 17th to end the day tied for 72nd, eight shots behind veteran Phil Mickelson (50), who made eight birdies in a seven-under 64 to lead by two strokes from Keegan Bradley and Korea's Kyoung-Hoon Lee.

Shane Lowry was two-under with three to play after he stiffed his tee shot at the 255-yard sixth but he bogeyed the seventh and eighth en route to a level par 71 that left him tied for 53rd with West Waterford's Seamus Power.

After making the field by winning the Monday qualifier, Power bogeyed the 12th but birdied the 13th, 14th and 15th to turn in two-under-par.

But he then bogeyed the fifth, seventh and eighth to slip to one-over before making a 13-footer for a birdie at the ninth to shoot level par.

Meanwhile, Paul Dunne fired his lowest round for two-and-a-half years to surge into contention at the Canary Islands Championship in Tenerife as Michael Hoey shot the second-lowest round of his career on the Challenge Tour in South Africa and Darren Clarke grabbed the first-round lead in the opening senior Major of the year.

Greystones star Dunne (28) rattled in eight birdies in a six-under 65 to share sixth place, just three shots behind Italy's Francesco Laporta at Golf Costa Adeje as Michael Hoey's nine-under 63 left him a shot off the pace in the Challenge Tour's Dimension Data Pro-Am.

"I just hit the ball better," said Dunne, who hasn't had a top-10 finish for two years after losing his card and undergoing wrist surgery in 2019.

"I didn't get off to a great start again," added the Wicklow man, who's missed four of five cuts this year. "Starting on 10 is a difficult par-three and I hit a really nice three-iron that went through the green and made a bogey from nowhere and thought, here we go again.

"But then I started to just string just a few good swings together, which I haven't done the last few weeks. I've been working hard at it, but my timing has been a little bit off. My sequencing and everything looks like it's in a good place. I just can't find a rhythm to play with it.

"But then I found it five or six holes in, and I ran with it for the day and hit a lot of really consistent shots. I hope I wake up tomorrow morning and it feels the same."

Laporta made an eagle and eight birdies, dropping just one shot in a nine-under 62 to lead by a shot from Spain's Scott Fernandez while Royal Dublin's Niall Kearney was 38th after a 68.

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Holywood's Tom McKibbin (18) finished with a double-bogey to share 54th with Cormac Sharvin after a 69 with Jonathan Caldwell 74th after 70.

As for Hoey, the Ballymoney man (42) had low expectations and carded an eagle and seven birdies in bogey-free, nine-under 63 on Fancourt's Outeniqua course — the second-lowest round of his career — to lie one stroke behind England's Ryan Evans in the Dimension Data Pro-Am.

"I haven't had great expectations in South Africa because I haven't really played for a year," Hoey revealed. "When they decided to keep the categories last year, I thought, what's the point.

"So I almost went into retirement… well, I basically retired. I am not saying officially, but I lost interest and got a job, and with the financial certainty of the tour, the PGA Tour alliance has helped out a lot.

"I was on the board for a few years, and I thought, is there going to be money there? What's the point in playing? Also, I am 42 now, so I had all these factors, and I'm thinking, am I going to play, what am I going to do?

"April is an unusual time of year, but I thought, I am going to go down to South Africa and enjoy it. I've always enjoyed South Africa. I made some outrageous putts and hit my wedges close."

Gavin Moynihan was 65th after making six birdies in a rollercoaster 71 at Outeniqua as Richard O'Donovan shot 78 at Montagu.

Meanwhile, Clarke (52) has his eye on his first senior Major after he opened with a six-under 66 to lead the Regions Tradition by a shot from Jerry Kelly and Canada's Stephen Ames at Greystone in Alabama.

"Majors are majors. It doesn't make any difference which tour they're on," said Clarke, who is seeking his third win on the PGA Tour Champions in six starts.

"You want to play well. You ask Tiger Woods, you ask Rory McIlroy, you ask Dustin, you ask Mr Nicklaus, you ask anybody, Majors are what they all want, and it's the same out here. We all want them, too.”

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