Golf - McIlroy trails by one after 67 with new clubs
Johannesburg (AFP) - World number two Rory McIlroy tees off Thursday in the South African Open hoping a change of clubs will not trigger a loss of form.
The last time the 27-year-old from Northern Ireland made his seasonal debut with new equipment was four years ago, and he initially struggled to adapt.
It was the only time in the past eight years that the four-time major winner finished outside the top five in his first appearance of the year.
The withdrawal of Nike from club manufacturing forced McIlroy to change and he has spent several weeks in Dubai experimenting with various brands.
For his first South African Open appearance since 2008, he will use woods and irons from one manufacturer, wedges and balls from another and a putter from a third.
The trio tee off at 0710 local time (0510 GMT) Thursday and at 1210 Friday.
A 7-4 favourite to win the second oldest national golf championship after the British Open, the Irishman quickly adapted to his new clubs at Glendower Golf Club near Johannesburg.
"The first few holes of my practice round were not great but once I got into the rhythm, everything was fine.
"I am in South Africa to play well and get my confidence up," said the star who has won every major bar the US Masters.
McIlroy said it could take time before settling on a new equipment combination as he seeks to overtake world number one Jason Day of Australia.
"My choice of equipment may change from week to week. We will see how I fare in South Africa.
"You never know until you study a card after a round. Besides, the golfer swinging the club is more important than the club itself."
Having spent much of festive season practising, the Irishman took time off from golf last weekend to visit a private South African game reserve.
McIlroy tweeted footage of a male lion, who wandered slowly past the vehicle the wide-eyed golf star was in with two rangers.
But the greatest threat to McIlroy could come from rising star Stone, impressive winner of the pre-Christmas Alfred Dunhill Championship in South Africa.
Only two shots ahead of title favourite and compatriot Charl Schwartzel with nine holes left, 23-year-old Stone pulled away to triumph by seven strokes.
The defending South African Open champion fired a warning to rivals by carding an 11-under-par 61 in a practice round at the 7,564-yard (6,916-metre) parkland course.
"You never really know after a festive break how it is going to pan out, A 61 certainly does not hurt the confidence," said Stone.
"I will be excited on Thursday when I step on to the first tee and the announcer says 'please welcome the defending champion, Brandon Stone'."
Created in 1937, Glendower Golf Club will be hosting a third consecutive South African Open, boasts 64 bunkers, and water hazards on 11 holes.