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fighting back Rory McIlroy's honest confession as he admitted he needed to reboot his game

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Rory McIlroy's wedge play was his downfall at Mount Juliet. Credit: Sportsfile

Rory McIlroy's wedge play was his downfall at Mount Juliet. Credit: Sportsfile

Rory McIlroy's wedge play was his downfall at Mount Juliet. Credit: Sportsfile

Rory McIlroy headed straight for the range after his wedge play deserted him and he was forced to dig deep just to open with a level-par 72 in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open.

While around 3,500 fans were allowed on site, it appeared that most of them were out following the four-time Major champion at a sun-kissed Mount Juliet Estate.

But the world No 10 failed to deliver a performance to match the party atmosphere, finishing outside the top 60 for his approach play and 126th for putting.

To his credit, he played the back nine in two-under just to end the day tied for 89th with Paul Dunne, eight shots behind Australia’s Lucas Herbert.

The 25-year old winner of the 2020 Omega Dubai Desert Classic made nine birdies, including five in his last seven holes on the front nine, as he carded an eight-under 64 to lead by a shot from American Johannes Veerman, who signed for a bogey-free seven-under 65 late in the day.

Scot Grant Forrest was a shot further back on six under with 15 players firing five-under 67s, including Martin Kaymer and McIlroy’s playing partner Tommy Fleetwood.

As for the Irish, 42-year old Glasson professional and former Challenge Tour winner Colm Moriarty flew the flag and shot 68 with a bogey at the last as Shane Lowry holed little in a 70 to share 57th and Royal Dublin’s Niall Kearney shot 71 to lie 73rd.

With the wind a mere zephyr and the course running firm and fast, no fewer than 56 players broke 70.

But it was always a struggle for McIlroy, who turned in two-over before he followed birdies at the 10th and 13th with three successive par saves to finish as Fleetwood cruised round in five-under and defending champion John Catlin shot 69.

“I hit a few shots out there that I didn’t see at all at the US Open a couple weeks ago,” McIlroy confessed as he prepared to head for the range. “I’m going to go here and get it straightened out.

“I didn’t start well, one-over through four, birdied five to get back to even and thought, okay, now I can go from here.

“Three-putted six, missed the green with a wedge on seven, bogeyed eight, and then from there, it was just a matter of trying to get it in with something respectable.

“I made a couple birdies on the back nine but missed a few chances, as well. Saved myself a little bit coming in.

“It was just one of those days nothing happened. I was stuck in neutral for most of the day.

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McIlroy was surprised at his poor wedge play after making big strides in that area recently.

“My wedges have been really, really good the last few weeks,” he said. “I think I went from outside the Top-100 in strokes gained approach when I started with Pete and I’m in the top 30 now on Tour, so making strides for sure. So two shots over the course of four days. That’s probably what the difference is right now.”

He hopes the gallery will inspire him today, admitting the atmosphere was different from what he usually gets on the PGA Tour.

“I got on the first tee today and put my tee in the ground, and there’s this big clap, but then the silence you feel afterwards, it’s something I haven’t felt in a while,” he said.

“I was over the ball on the first tee, and I was like ‘it’s sort of quiet’. That’s the one thing I thought: ‘Oh, this is really quiet.’ It’s different. But good to be back.”

Graeme McDowell struggled on the greens, missing four putts inside 10 feet in his first seven holes before fighting back with birdies at the last two to shoot 74, one stroke worse than Hermitage’s Rowan Lester, Ardglass’ Cormac Sharvin and Kilkenny amateur Mark Power.

Moriarty (42) was the Irish feel-good story of the day eight years after he called it a day after winning once on the Challenge Tour but never gaining a proper foothold on the main Tour.

“We’ve all been playing so much competitive golf since we were so young that the competitiveness never leaves you,” Moriarty said after making a great bogey at the last, finding the green with his third from behind the big tree on the right after getting into trouble with his tee shot.

“I just played really solid. I have been fortunate, I’ve been down here a bit over the last few weeks and practised; it’s just a lovely place to play golf in weather like that.

“I drove the ball pretty well. My iron play was pretty good, I gave myself a lot of chances and just made some really good decisions.

“When I got a little bit out of position, I just assessed the shots well. Just a really good solid round,” he added.

A regular on the Irish circuit, he played the British Masters and the Irish Challenge after being idle for nearly seven months and then prepared diligently by playing three practice rounds at a venue where his sponsor Billy Connolly from Connolly Red Mills is a member.

“I played three times, he said. “But because I hadn’t played a lot of golf here, maybe that worked to my advantage; it forced me to come down.

“You want to come down here and do well, and you want to prepare well. You might play well or you might not but that competitive spirit always burns bright.”

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