STRAFFAN, Ireland - Masters champion Danny Willett struck an opening round of 7-under 65 in the Irish Open to take a two-shot lead over home favorite Rory McIlroy on Thursday.
Willett continued his impressive form barely a month after he won his first major title at Augusta. He hit eight birdies and dropped his only shot on the 17th when his par-saving putt stopped on the edge of the cup.
He putted precisely despite blustery conditions on the 7,350-yard (6,719-meter) course at the K Club, an American-style parkland venue designed by Arnold Palmer that hosted the 2006 Ryder Cup.
Willett said it would be terrific if he and McIlroy remained close together atop the leaderboard through Sunday's finale to give Ireland's passionate golf fans maximum entertainment. World No. 3 McIlroy and Willett, No. 9, are the two highest-ranked players at the Irish Open.
''That would be good fun,'' Willett said.
McIlroy, the tournament host, said his solid performance provided only a little relief after his failure to make the Irish Open cut the past three years, a record he called ''extremely disappointing.''
''It's only one day. I still have to make the cut tomorrow,'' McIlroy said. ''Until I get into contention in this event and finally win it, I don't feel like any weight will be lifted off my shoulders.''
McIlroy appeared poised to take a share of the lead until he turned an eagle opportunity on the par-3 14th hole into a three-putt bogey. He dropped his head in frustration after badly overhitting his four-foot birdie chance.
He saved his best for last with a powerful tee shot on to the par-5 18th. His second shot with a 6 iron dropped within 10 feet of the pin for another eagle opportunity, but that putt curled short and right with the gusting wind. He settled for his sixth birdie of the round.
England's Callum Shinkwin and South Africa's Jaco Van Zyl shared third place, one stroke behind McIlroy.