McIlroy makes strong start, Fox trots into Carnoustie contention
Rory McIlroy was one of the few big names to impress at the Irish Open as Ryan Fox ended the first round with a one-shot lead in his bid to play his way into The Open for the second successive year.
Tournament host McIlroy carded four birdies as he opened with a two-under 70, his only blemishes coming on the fifth and the 15th at Ballyliffin.
While the world number eight is just three strokes behind leader Fox, every other top-50 player competing in the event struggled. Defending champion Jon Rahm went round in a two-over 74, two better than compatriot Rafa Cabrera Bello, while Kiradech Aphibarnrat and Li Haotong posted one-over 73s.
Matt Fitzpatrick may find himself flirting with the cut if he fails to improve on Friday after he finished with a five-over 77.
The leading three players at this event who have not already qualified for The Open will earn a place at Carnoustie in two weeks' time, Fox having done just that at this event last year.
And he did his hopes of a repeat performance the power of good with an excellent opening round, going blemish free on his back nine and closing with his sixth birdie of the round on the ninth thanks to a lengthy putt.
Padraig Harrington, Lee Westwood and Danny Willett feature in a group of seven players one shot off the lead, with Ashley Chesters, Adrien Saddier, Robert Rock and Matthieu Pavon all looking in fine fettle in their bid to reach The Open.
Mark Foster's hopes of playing in the third major of the year appear extremely slim after he went five over to start the tournament, but he does at least have a consolation prize after holing an ace at the seventh.