Willett back with a bang

European Tour

Danny Willett carded a seven-under-par 65 to claim a two-shot after the first round of the Irish Open on Thursday.

Playing in his first tournament since being crowned Masters champion in April, the Englishman showed no signs of rustiness to open up a handy lead over tournament host Rory McIlroy, who is alone in second place following a round of 67.

While Willett's triumph at Augusta National was his second of the year, world number two McIlroy has also been in fine form of late, notching five top 10s since the Masters, although he has failed to make it past the second round in this event in the last three years.

Willett currently has a significant advantage over McIlroy in the Race to Dubai standings, but if Thursday's action is anything to go by, this year's battle to be crowned Europe's number one could go down to the wire.

In changing conditions, with rain in the morning and sunny but windy weather in the afternoon, Willett and McIlroy rose to County Kildare's challenge.

On four-under, one shot behind McIlroy, was Callum Shinkwin and Jaco Van Zyl, with defending champion Søren Kjeldsen, two-time Major winner Martin Kaymer and Ross Fisher another shot further behind on three-under.

Fisher and Kaymer were the clubhouse leaders for much of the day after finishing their rounds early, before a series of birdies saw the leaderboard change somewhat late in the day.

McIlroy notched birdies at the fourth and sixth holes, before rolling in a tricky putt on the ninth to join the leading pack before Shinkwin got his nose in front with a birdie on the second, having started on the back nine.

Willett then joined the part with birdies on the third, seventh and ninth to turn in 32. Shinkwin, meanwhile got to five-under with a birdie on the fifth, but from here Willett and McIlroy started to reel him in.

McIlroy got to four-under with birdie on the par-five 10h, before Willett joined him when he birdied the 10th and then moved to five-under on the 11th.

The Ulsterman then joined the Masters champion when he left himself a short iron with his second on the 13th, before holing from the fringe. Meanwhile, Willett went to six-under when he holed from three feet on the same hole.

On the 14th, McIlroy dropped a shot when he three-putted, and after Shinkwin bogeyed the eighth and Willett sunk a long putt on the 14th, the Masters winner had a three-shot lead.

Willett dropped a shot on the 17th and McIlroy birdies the long last hole to narrow the gap to one stroke, but the Englishman followed suit to reestablish his two-shot lead.

Van Zyl battled on the front nine, but four birdies on the last nine holes saw him soar up the leaderboard to join Fisher and Kaymer.