John Rahm outshines Rory McIlroy to sit one off Irish Open leaders

The scoreboard tells the story of a disappointing day for Rory McIlroy but a great one for Spaniard John Rahm and Japanese superstar Hideki Matsuyama Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Michael McWilliams at Portstewart

RORY McIlroy was supposed to be the all-action hero in Portstewart yesterday, but it was a man nicknamed ‘Rahmbo’ who drew First Blood in the battle of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open’s ‘big three’.

Jon Rahm may or may not have been allowed to reveal that he had been promised the first two rounds in the company of the tournament’s host if he agreed to come to the north coast this week, but the Spaniard will have an extra spring in his step after out-gunning the Holywood man and Hideki Matsuyama on his way to a sparkling seven-under round of 65.

American Daniel Im and Frenchman Benjamin Hebert might be the men at the top of the leaderboard at eight-under after day one, but Rahm looks every inch the man to beat on his return to the Strand Course, three years after limping to a 75 in qualifying for the British Amateur.

A crowd of 17,763 came through the gates yesterday and it seemed like at least half of them were on the first tee to see the marquee group start their round at 1.20pm. The other half were congregated around the nearby Surf Bar, where an ocean of a certain Dutch beer was being consumed.

And McIlroy must have been tempted to have a drink or two himself after a day when he hit the ball well but couldn’t get it to drop on the greens. After trading two bogeys for two birdies at the par five fourth and seventh, he signed for 11 straight pars, a good percentage of which could have been birdies had his putter turned hot.

As it was, McIlroy’s flat stick was as cold as the copious beverages being consumed outside the ropes, while Rahm, and to a lesser extent Matsuyama, who ended up with a seemingly effortless 67, rolled their putts like a dream.

“Pretty frustrated,” was how McIlroy summed up his emotions at the end of the first day.

“Especially when you’re playing with Jon and Hideki, and they are shooting seven-under and five-under. I felt like I was going backwards just being level-par.”

Not that there is room for jealousy as tournament host.

“I was really excited when Jon and Hideki agreed to come and play. To see them at

seven-under and five-under is exactly where we want them to be,” said Rory.

“It’s the big names, you want to see them up there. Selflessly, it’s good to see them up there. Selfishly, I want to be alongside them. I’ve got my work cut out to do that.”

Of course, the Irish Open has attracted more than three big names, and long before the defending champion’s group got going, another stellar threesome in the form of Graeme McDowell, Tommy Fleetwood and Justin Rose were beginning their effort from the 10th tee.

The trio went off at 8.20am, with the smell of bacon and sausages wafting across the still Derry air, not that McDowell would let his head be turned by stuff like that, as he revealed after an impressive opening round of 67, which keeps him right in the hunt, just three shots off the pace, going into day two.

The Portrush man is staying with his parents this week, but has been working hard to resist the added comforts that go with it.

“I’m trying to stay off the sausages and rashers as much as I can this week,” he said.

“It’s bad for my ever-growing shape. But it’s been a lot of fun being back up on the north coast, staying at home and seeing my family and friends.”

Like McDowell, his English playing partners also looked totally at home early in the day, and while ‘Gmac’, Shane Lowry and Padraig Harrington, playing in the groups either side of the home hope, were clearly the favourites of the morning galleries, Fleetwood and Rose also got great receptions for every good shot.

Rose was the form horse early on, getting to five-under after 11, with the highlight being an eagle three at 14, but when things went quiet for him, McDowell stepped forward, picking up four shots on his second nine to get to

five-under himself and grab a share of ninth.

And he was quick to heap praise on the fans who crawled out of their beds to take in the morning action.

“I felt the crowd give me some really good energy,” he said.

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