(Reuters) - World number two Rory McIlroy, back at the scene of his first PGA Tour win, fired a five-under 67 at Quail Hollow on Thursday for a seven-way share of the first-round lead in the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The Northern Irishman was joined atop the leaderboard by Americans Nick Watney, Ryan Moore, Robert Garrigus, Daniel Summerhays, Derek Ernst and Monday qualifier Nate Smith.
Another six players were one stroke back, including former Masters champions Phil Mickelson and Zach Johnson, and former U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover, who won this event in 2011.
McIlroy, still looking for his first tournament victory this year, struggled early in the season to find his top form after switching his golf ball and clubs.
“I’ve made big strides,” said McIlroy, who will turn 24 on Saturday. “My game wasn’t where it should have been at all in the beginning of the year. Now I feel like I‘m swinging it well. I’ve seen my game progress week by week. It’s a nice start here this week.”
McIlroy may have landed in the perfect place to get back on the winning track. He fired a spectacular final-round 62 to win the 2010 tournament for his first U.S. tour win and last year went to a playoff won by Rickie Fowler.
Soft conditions prevailed on a cool, damp overcast day on a course where the greens held approach shots, but posed a challenge to putt after being damaged by a harsh winter.
Two of the greens, the eighth and 10th, were completely resodded just seven days ago, and several others were splotchy and pitted by spike marks as the day wore on.
McIlroy felt he was ready to contend last month at the Masters, but soared to a back-nine 42 on Saturday on his way to a 79. He shot 69 in the final round at Augusta to tie for 25th.
“I took the best part of two weeks off,” McIlroy said about recharging following the year’s first major. “Then I had four days of good practice. I feel good about my game.”
Summerhays reached six under par with a birdie at the 15th, but missed a three-footer to save par at the par-three 17th to fall back.
Smith, who shot a 63 to qualify on Monday for his first PGA Tour start of the season, also held the sole lead for a hole after he birdied 16 to reach six-under but he missed a four-foot putt for par at the 17th to slip back.
Defending champion Fowler fired an even-par 72.
Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue