Rickie Fowler made a great start in his bid for a second Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open title in three years as Rory McIlroy’s struggles continued at Dundonald Links.
Fowler fired a confident 67 to join Ian Poulter and Padraig Harrington on five-under par, two adrift of first-round leader Mikko Ilonen, while McIlroy stuttered to a 74 and is likely to need a sub-70 score on Friday to avoid missing the cut for the third time in four starts.
After England’s Callum Shinkwin had set the early clubhouse target after he eagled the last to complete a 67, Fowler outshone playing-partners McIlroy and Henrik Stenson and the American was one of only four players in the 156-man field to keep a bogey off his card.
Fowler, who won at Gullane in 2015 but did not defend his title last year due to scheduling difficulties, got up and running with a birdie at the 13th – his fourth – and added another at the next before breaking a run of six pars with three consecutive birdies from the third.
The world No 10 parred in to stay tied at the top with Shinkwin, Australian Andrew Dodt and Poulter, who followed a birdie at 13 with an eagle at the long 14th before back-to-back bogeys halted his momentum.
But the English veteran bounced back with four birdies in a flawless front-nine 32 which lifted him back into a share of second, with Harrington later joining the group along with Paul Peterson.
Harrington, who will return to the scene of his second Open victory at Royal Birkdale next week, birdied three of the first five holes and got to five under at the 11th before dropping shots at 12 and 15 either side of another birdie at the 13th.
The Irishman defied the cold and rain later in the day to roll in his seventh birdie putt of the round at 17, although he was unable to take advantage of the par-five last as he remained two shots behind Ilonen, who arrived in Ayrshire on the back of four consecutive missed cuts.
The Finn birdied 14 and 15 in a solid back-nine 34, and he then surged into the outright lead with a sparkling run of five birdies in six holes from the first, in the worst of the conditions, and completed his best round of the season with three good pars.
Home favourites Stephen Gallacher and Richie Ramsay are well placed on four under alongside Matt Kuchar and Ireland’s Paul Dunne, while Adam Scott cruised to the turn in four under with an eagle and a pair of birdies before losing his way after the turn and settling for a 69.
Reigning Open champion Stenson made a horrendous start as he triple-bogeyed his opening hole, but a birdie at his last salvaged a battling 72, while McIlroy declined to speak to reporters after another inconsistent performance.
Determined to atone for his early exit at his own tournament last week, McIlroy bogeyed 11 and 12 and then carved his second into water at the 13th which led to a double-bogey six and left him four over after four holes.
The world No 4 stopped the rot with a birdie at the next only to give the shot back with a scrappy six at the 18th, but he rallied on the front nine and made good fours at the third and fifth before rolling in a 25-foot putt for another gain at seven, although a wayward tee-shot at the ninth led to his fourth bogey of the day.