Playing for the fourth straight week, the top-ranked McIlroy failed to recapture the form that saw him surge to a record seven-shot victory at the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow last week.
McIlroy had two birdies and two bogeys in his first five holes, missing a 12-foot putt for par at the first hole after failing to find the green with his approach. He went birdie-bogey-birdie from Nos. 12-14, and could not take advantage of par-5s on the final two holes.
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Karlsson made six birdies for a round of 67. The Swede birdied two of the final three holes to take the overall lead in the European Tour’s flagship event.
Karlsson was one shot ahead of four players — Miguel Angel Jimenez, Jorge Campillo, Chris Wood and Y.E. Yang.
Stephen Gallacher of Scotland was forced to withdraw from the competition, shortly before he was scheduled to tee off with Lee Westwood and Tommy Fleetwood. Gallacher, who was part of Europe’s 2014 Ryder Cup-winning team, has a wrist injury.
Veteran Padraig Harrington, who injured his shoulder during a workout earlier this week, also withdrew after two holes Thursday. It was the first time in his 20-year career that he had to pull out of a tournament.