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Rory McIlroy locked in battle on and off the course at Tour Championship

The Northern Irishman is close to both Mickelson and Woods and had actually been careful to express his belief that – despite neither Woods of Mickelson making it into the final 30 here for the first time since 1992 – these golfing superstars were far from finished.

“I just couldn’t understand the backlash. I’ve said far worse things to Tiger’s face!” McIlroy said. “It wasn’t like I was writing them off at all.

“I just said Tiger didn’t get the chance to play here because he was injured, and that Phil’s played great at times. I said that we’ll see them both back at this event plenty of times.

“But when I saw the reaction I thought, ‘Hang on, have I said something wrong here?’ I don’t think so. I know those guys both really well and I don’t think I said anything out of order. I went on Twitter to try to clarify it, and I couldn’t believe the reaction.”

McIlroy did well to put it to out of his mind, although his round did not begin well at all. On the first he pushed his drive into the crowd and the fact there was no discernible cry of “fore” from the tee was disappointing, especially on the day the Paraguayan professional Fabrizio Zanotti was taken to hospital after being hit on the head by a errant tee-shot by a fellow competitor on the European Tour in Holland.

Thankfully, Zanotti was given the all clear and if this incident leads to the golfer’s being reminded about their responsibilities then so much the better.

Back on the first, McIlroy hit a tree when trying an audacious rescue shot, but still saved his par, courtesy of a wedge from 112 yards to eight feet.

And he was among the familiar red numbers when conjuring an approach from 140 yards to within a foot on the par-four third.

There were birdies on the par-three sixth and par-four eighth, where he hit it to eight feet on both occasions, but the bogeys had started to appear.

On the fourth and seventh he found fairway bunkers off the tee and on the par-three 11th he missed the green.

It was head down and grind from there on in. There was a fine up and down on the 12th and an even better one on the 16th, where he holed from nine feet. And the 12-foot birdie on the 17th hauled him into the top dozen, where he remained after a courageous sand save on the last.

“It threatened to get away from me,” McIlroy said. “And with those three guys at the head of the standings playing so well I couldn’t afford to shoot a high number.”

Poor Tom Watson, the US captain, will see Kirk and last week’s winner Horschel maintaining their excellence and surely wince when he then peers down and see his two wildcards in the field, Hunter Mahan and Webb Simpson, on four-over, one off the bottom.

Yet this field is bunched and with the likes of Jason Day, Patrick Reed and Jim Furyk also on three-under alongside Watson this race has the look of a stampede.

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