McIlroy shoots 68 in return; Fleetwood leads at Quail Hollow


A little time away from golf paid off for birthday boy Rory McIlroy. The world’s third-ranked player shot a 3-under 68 at the Wells Fargo Championship on Thursday in his first tournament since missing the cut at the Masters, leaving him three shots behind first-round leader Tommy Fleetwood.

Fleetwood’s 6-under 65 was one stroke better than Xander Schauffele, Kevin Streelman, Taylor Moore, K.H. Lee and Ryan Palmer, who are tied for second after opening 66s.

Patrick Cantlay, with Tiger Woods’ former cad-die Joe LaCava on his bag, shot 67. McIlroy with-drew from the HBC Heritage following a disappointing second round 77 at Augusta National, a controversial decision that cost him a $3 million bonus for failing to meet the playing requirements for the PGA Tour’s new Player Impact Program.

The Northern Irishman said earlier in the week he didn’t touch his clubs for more than two weeks, adding that he needed a “reset” to gain some perspective because golf had begun to consume his life.

He looked fresh on Thursday. “It was just really nice to be out there again,” McIlroy said.

It’s no surprise McIlroy is off to a strong start at Quail Hollow, a course that fits his game. He has won the Wells Fargo Championship three times and finished in the top 10 nine times in 11 starts.

It’s also the site of his first PGA Tour victory in 2010 and where he set a tournament scoring record at 21-under 267 in a dominating seven-stroke win in 2015. He won again in 2021, making him the tournament’s only three-time champion.

“I feel relaxed here,” McIlroy said. “I think if you come back to the site of your first win on tour, and I’ve gotten to know (Quail Hollow president Johnny) Harris really well and it’s just a level of comfort at this golf course and at this club that I probably don’t have at any other venue on tour.”

McIlroy sent his opening tee shot on No. 10 down the fairway and a fan yelled “Happy birthday, Rory.” He went on shoot 34-34, some fitting numbers for his 34th birthday.

McIlroy’s only hiccup came on No. 7, when he sent his tee shot way right and out of bounds, forcing him to hit a provisional. McIlroy took advantage of his second opportunity, hammering a 366-yard drive down the fairway. He wound up missing a 22-foot par putt to finish with his only bogey.—APP