Super-long hitter Rory McIlroy put a new driver in his bag on Thursday, and the bad news for everyone else is that he can blast it even farther off the tee. A cold putter kept the Northern Irishman from threatening the top of the first-round leaderboard at the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai. But the FedEx Cup champion was hugely impressive off the tee. Playing partner Bubba Watson, one of the game’s longest hitters, could only watch as McIlroy used his new driver to boom the ball past him time and again en route to an opening one-under 71, seven shots behind leader Rikard Karlberg. McIlroy’s equipment supplier Nike’s decision earlier this year to stop making clubs means he is now free to choose the weapons that suit his game best. For the first time this week that includes the Taylor Made M2 driver, also used by the world’s two top-ranked players Jason Day and Dustin Johnson, no slouches off the tee themselves. “I felt like I drove the ball really well,” world number three McIlroy said after his round on a cool, damp day at Sheshan International Golf Club not conducive to big hitting. “Look, I’ve been driving the ball well anyway, but yeah, it was nice to see the ball flying where it was going.” McIlroy tweeted a picture last week from practice in Dubai that showed he was regularly carrying his drives over 330 yards with the new club. “I would say I would have been level [with playing partner Adam Scott] without it and maybe a little bit behind [Watson] before, and I was hitting it by both of them so it can only be a positive,” said McIlroy. “Especially when conditions are like this and it’s so soft, it [still] goes a long way in the air. Hopefully that can be to my benefit over the next few days.” On the eve of the tournament McIlroy remarked that the Nike decision to end their equipment manufacturing had left him in two minds. “I felt bad for a lot of the employees that put so much time and effort into building really good golf clubs. But in another way, it’s given me a little bit of freedom to see what else is out there. “Now I can be in the position where I can use whatever in my golf bag that fits me 100 per cent the best. “So that could be a certain driver, a different brand of three-wood, a different branded set of irons, different wedges and a different putter. “That’s a process that I’m still working through.” American Rickie Fowler was also in good form, shooting a seven-under-par 65 to leave him one shot off the pace.