Newcastle - Rory McIlroy ignited hopes of a first tournament victory of the season on Thursday as he birdied two of his closing four holes to stay in touch with the leaders at the British Masters.
McIlroy, who carded a three-under-par 67, was just three shots behind the clubhouse-leading foursome of Spain's Alvaro Quiros, England's Chris Hanson and the Finnish duo of Mikko Ilonen and Mikko Korhonen after his opening round.
McIlroy started his round at Close House near the northeastern city of Newcastle from the 10th hole, dropping a shot at the 12th before bouncing back immediately with a birdie.
At the uphill par-four 17th McIlroy lost his ball in deep rough after an errant drive and found it within seconds of the allowed five minutes, thanks to help from spectators. He hit a further three birdies on his back nine.
"It was an OK round and I didn't feel that I did anything particularly great, but I didn't do anything really bad except for one bad tee shot on 17 which nearly cost me and looking like a lost ball but we managed to find it and I made par," the Northern Irishman said.
"I have been seeing some positives in my game over the last week in my practice as my iron play is starting to get better, as is my wedge play, so those are the things I have really struggled with this year and I feel like they are going in the right direction."
McIlroy, a four-time major champion, is looking to secure a first win of 2017 and continue an unbroken run since 2009 of having won at least one event a season.
Quiros returned to form in impressive style, sinking birdies on four of his opening six holes. Last week in Portugal he ended a miserable run of missed cuts after winning the Rocco Forte Open in Sicily in May.
"The best club all day for me was my attitude as I was really very patient," he said. "But am pleased to say thanks to that my score today was very good."