Wind in his sails
Rory McIlroy's hopes of winning a first UBS Hong Kong Open crown soared high in the strong early-morning winds which swept through Fanling on the opening day of the showpiece tournament.
While most of the field was blown away by the blustery wind - even a big Christmas tree near the family fun zone came crashing down - McIlroy was steadfast as he grabbed early ownership of the first-round lead with a stunning six-under 64.
But with conditions turning more benign later in the day, Spain's Alvaro Quiros and England's David Horsey joined him in a three-way tie at the top of the leaderboard. Two-time Hong Kong Open champion Miguel Angel Jimenez of Spain was one shot adrift of the leaders on 65, while Gareth Maybin of Northern Ireland and Darren Beck of Australia were on 66.
It was an incredible feat by US Open champion McIlroy considering everyone else was being blown away, most falling victim to the tough conditions and others just failing to come to terms with the rock-hard greens.
But the 22-year-old world number two from Northern Ireland was rock solid as he rolled in six birdies. He was quite matter-of-fact about the effort afterwards.
'It was my best round in Hong Kong,' said McIlroy, who has been coming here since he was a 15-year-old kid playing in the Nick Faldo Series, and is familiar with the ins and outs of Fanling. 'I didn't make a mistake. Six birdies and no bogeys is always a nice way to start a tournament. I gave myself a lot of chances. I think I hit 17 greens and it was nice to take a few of those opportunities.
'The wind was obviously a big factor. It swirls in these trees. You can feel it one minute downwind and the next right-to-left and you have to trust where the wind is coming from. I was able to handle the wind pretty well.'
It wasn't quite the same when Quiros and Horsey went out in the late afternoon flights with the wind calming down considerably.
They also shot 64s, which could be seen as a new course record. This is because of a new configuration to the par-70 composite course at the Hong Kong club. One hole, the par three, 180-yard 15th, has been remodelled to make it more challenging.
Horsey, 26, birdied his final hole, the 18th, calmly hitting his approach from 125 feet to within two feet for a simple tap-in, completing an error-free round.
'I only missed two greens,' Horsey said. 'A couple of sand saves was also timely and that was nice to keep the momentum going.'
Two chip-ins for birdies helped Quiros, who finished with four birdies and an eagle on the par five, 529-yard 12th hole.
'It is only the first round so it's nothing. I mean Rory [McIlroy] could be out there and finish winning this tournament. It's a good round of golf, nothing else,' said the pragmatic Quiros.
Former major champion Padraig Harrington finished with a level-par 70, while John Daly failed to sparkle and could only shoot a four-over 74.
In match 27, it was Ryder Cup captains past and present as Colin Montgomerie and Jose Maria Olazabal went out together, but their performances were far below the heights they've hit in the game's greatest matchplay event.
Both men were three over for the day, with only a solitary birdie between them; Medinah must have seemed a long way away, especially for Montgomerie, who insisted last week he still hoped to do enough next year to win a wild-card pick from his successor as captain.
Olazabal probably wasn't too impressed yesterday, but refused to rule out what would be a remarkable comeback. Indeed, the Basque demonstrated his faith in his old Europe teammate this week by naming him as his first pick for the Royal Trophy, which will be played in Brunei in December of next year.
'It's tough to make the team, you really have to play good golf,' said Olazabal, like Montgomerie a past winner at Fanling. 'Having said that, we all know how consistent Monty is and how good he can be - and on top of that we all know how good his record is in matchplay and especially at the Ryder Cup.
'From what I saw today, he hit a few bad shots but he's not all that far off - he still hits a lot of wonderful iron shots into the green. It's just a matter of making a few putts. Pretty much like me, he didn't hole any putts.'
The Ryder Cup is still nearly 10 months away, but Olazabal is already planning how to retain the trophy Montgomerie's team won last year.
'It's still early. I've had a look at the list but I think things will really heat up around April, May, June,' he said.
Additional reporting James Porteous
Rory McIlroy's age when he started playing the course at Fanling, as a participant in the Nick Faldo Series for young golfers