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McIlroy starts well in bid to end winless streak

ESPN staff
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Rory McIlroy has fallen out of the world's top 10 for the first time in more than three years © Getty Images
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Rory McIlroy opened with a solid three-under-par round of 69 on his return to the scene of his maiden PGA Tour title at Quail Hollow.

McIlroy came into the tournament determined to end his 20-month winless streak in the US which has seen him fall out of the world's top 10 for the first time in more than three years.

Although it is more a matter of the mathematics and the two-year Official World Golf Ranking cycle, the Northern Irishman's fall to 11th this week is yet another reminder of his struggles in 2013 after getting to No.1 in the world.

Mickelson over Masters disappointment

Phil Mickelson missed the cut at the Masters for just the second time as a professional © Getty Images
  • Putting a disappointing Masters behind him, Phil Mickelson shot 67 in his first competitive round since missing the cut at Augusta to finish a stroke behind first-round leader Angel Cabrera at Quail Hollow.
  • Mickelson missed the weekend at the Masters for just the second time as a pro and the first since 1997, but bounced back with a seven-birdie, two-bogey effort.
  • "You always have to let go of poor performance - it's part of the game of golf," said Mickelson, who is tied with Martin Flores, a shot behind Cabrera, the two-time major winner who shot 66. "Failing is a huge part of this game, especially playing professionally, and you have to let it go and move forward.
  • "There are too many great tournaments coming up to let a poor performance affect your upcoming events."
  • Jonathan Byrd, Stewart Cink and Webb Simpson are at four under, while Rory McIlroy is joined at three under by eight others, including Ryder Cup team-mates Martin Kaymer, who carded rare back-to-back eagles - just the third time it has happened on tour this season - and Justin Rose, whose round included a successful putt from 75 feet.
  • Click here to see the full leaderboard

"I haven't won a PGA Tour event since the BMW Championship at Crooked Stick [in September 2012] and I don't want that going much longer," McIlroy said.

"I really don't want to go two years without a PGA Tour win. The next big thing is getting back competing, which I am, then getting the wins and building that back up, as well as competing in majors again."

McIlroy, who celebrates his 25th birthday on Sunday, was No.1 for a total of 39 weeks, the last before Tiger Woods captured the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March of last year.

Woods, who is out following back surgery, is expected to relinquish top spot in the coming weeks - but it won't be to McIlroy, mostly due to a poor 2013 in which he did not win on either the PGA or European Tour. He also missed the cut at the Open Championship at Muirfield.

"It's not nice to drop out, over three years in the top 10, and you sort of get comfortable there," McIlroy said.

"Hopefully I can get myself back up into that sort of territory I have been at the last few years."

McIlroy's slide in the rankings is mainly due to his failing to live up to the high standards he set with his record in 2012. McIlroy won five times worldwide that year, including his second major at the PGA Championship.

His only victory in 2013 came late in the year at the Australian Open. He's winless this year but has five top-10 finishes, including a tie for eighth at the Masters, his best finish at Augusta National.

It was there, McIlroy said, that he figured out some putting issues that have been holding him back. McIlroy was third from the bottom of the field in putting for the week and said he missed 15 putts inside of eight feet.

He added: "And that's not counting the ones I missed from inside 12 feet, 15 feet."

He realised he was standing too close to the ball, causing bad sight lines, and that his stance was too open, causing him to push the ball to the right.

"It seems so simple, how can a tour pro make that mistake?" he said. "But you get into bad habits and it sort of takes a bad putting week or an eye opener like Augusta for me to say something needs to change here."

McIlroy had eight one-putt greens Thursday and just 28 overall. More important to him was that he was making "the ones that I missed at Augusta".

"I felt like I played solid," he said. "I gave myself plenty of looks for birdies and felt I putted a little better than I've done the last few weeks, so that's a positive.

"I was looking to go a few more under par after the turn, but I wasn't able to do that. I think anything sub-70 today was a pretty good because the wind was a little gusty."

And he made an impression on playing partner Jonas Blixt. "He hit it further than I thought; he hits it really far," Masters runner-up Blixt said. "He hit some really long drives."

Quail Hollow is the beginning of a busy stretch for McIlroy that will allow him plenty of opportunities to make a move back into the top 10. After this week's event, he will play next week's Players Championship, then following a week off will head to England for the European Tour's BMW PGA Championship. Then it's the Memorial Tournament, a week off, and the US Open.

It wasn't until last week that McIlroy decided to add the European Tour's flagship event to his schedule, saying "I wasn't going to play Wentworth, but I decided I'm playing well, might as well go knock it out."

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