Shane Lowry, Rory McIlroy make solid starts at Irish Open

STRAFFAN, Ireland -- Shane Lowry needs a good week at the Irish Open to justify getting picked for the Ryder Cup.

Adrian Meronk wants one to show Europe captain Luke Donald was wrong to leave him off the team.

Both got off to a decent start Thursday.

Lowry made seven birdies and shot 4-under 68 at The K Club to lie 3 shots off the lead held by Shubhankar Sharma of India after the first round of the European tour event.

Aggrieved at being overlooked by Donald, Meronk began birdie-birdie and shot 69 in a solid start to his title defense.

On a day when Rory McIlroy -- the big draw this week along with home favorite Lowry -- felt the love of the crowds and also shot 69, Sharma produced a bogey-free round of 65 in sweltering conditions in the afternoon to finish with a 1-stroke lead over five players: Englishmen Jordan Smith and Ross Fisher, Marcel Schneider of Germany, Kristian Krogh Johannessen of Norway and 52-year-old Dane Thomas Bjorn, who knows all about the joy and pain of Ryder Cup selection.

Bjorn was the winning Ryder Cup captain from Le Golf National in 2018 who, 12 years earlier, called Ian Woosnam "the most pathetic captain I have ever seen" after being snubbed for a pick for the 2006 event at The K Club.

An elder statesman of the European tour, Bjorn has not played competitively since June because of collarbone and lower back problems, missed the cut in his past five events and has a current ranking of No. 1,232. Yet he showed he can still mix it with some of the best in the world by making seven birdies along with a sole bogey at his last hole -- the ninth -- after missing the green with his approach and also a par putt from 11 feet.

"I said to my caddie this morning when we walked to the first tee, 'Let's try to see if we can break 90,'" Bjorn said. "It was that kind of day. I came here with no expectations and it just shows how silly this game can be."

Sharma went one better than Bjorn, boosted by a birdie-birdie-eagle run from his seventh hole -- the 16th -- after starting at No. 9. The eagle came when he holed out from 104 yards at the par-5 18th.

Lowry, who was an amateur when he won the Irish Open in 2009, was in a tie for 13th as he looks for a first top-10 finish since the Honda Classic in February to take with him to Rome, where he is one of six captain's picks.

That he'd be selected by Donald wasn't really up for discussion, despite missing the cut at two of his past three starts -- including at the British Open, which he won in 2019.

Lowry, though, said neither the Ryder Cup nor next week's PGA Championship, where he is the defending champion, were in his thoughts.

"Take away everything else that's in the next few weeks, this is a big week for me," Lowry said. "I want to go out there and play well and give myself a chance to win this tournament. It's only 45 minutes to an hour from where I'm from in Clara. I want the people to be getting on their buses on Sunday morning to come and watch me try and win this tournament.

"That's all I want this week. It's nothing to do with the Ryder Cup or Wentworth next week or anything. This tournament for me is huge. I feel at home here. I live in Florida and I miss home a lot when I'm away. It's nice to be back."

Many thought Meronk would also be in the European team but Donald selected Nicolai Hojgaard ahead of him in what was likely his final call.

Birdies from 6 feet and 22 feet on the opening two holes, after starting at No. 10, showed Meronk meant business in the toughest week of his golfing career. He mixed two birdies with two bogeys before hitting an approach to 7 feet at his last hole and draining the birdie putt.

McIlroy birdied his final two holes and said it was "a pretty average day."

"Didn't really feel great with anything," he said. "It's hard to say I'm rusty when I've only had a week off but I just haven't had a chance to practice much and I just hit a few loose shots out there."