Friday 9 December 2016

McIlroy hits form for 66 as Nicklaus clinic pays dividends

William S Callahan

Published 03/06/2011 | 05:00

Rory McIlroy could hardly be in a better place right now than the Memorial Championship at Muirfield Village.

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The young Ulsterman enjoys the tournament, loves the golf course and seems to have established a special rapport with this week's host in Dublin, Ohio, Jack Nicklaus.

Nicklaus has been an admirer of McIlroy for some time, even inviting him to lunch at the Bear's Club in Jupiter, Florida in March of last year.

When he and McIlroy met for a pre-tournament clinic at Muirfield Village on Tuesday, the Golden Bear's first words to the 22-year-old were a jovial: "I'm going to kick your rear end."

They hadn't met since McIlroy's implosion at The Masters and Nicklaus offered only words of encouragement on that topic, telling him: "Just learn from your mistakes, like I did during my career".

So it came as little surprise yesterday to see McIlroy put the memories of Augusta National even further behind him with a polished first-round 66 which lifted the youngster into a share of the clubhouse lead with Chris Riley on six-under.

precision

Indeed, the Northern Irish ace came within a hair's breadth of taking the lead on his own at the ninth, his final hole, when his eight-foot putt for birdie came to rest on the right lip.

For the most part yesterday, McIlroy played precision golf. Yet on the few occasions he missed the target, his short game was sharp and his putting, on lightning-quick bentgrass surfaces, seemed assured.

His card featured seven birdies and just one bogey, at 13, McIlroy's fourth, where he failed to get up and down after short-siding himself in a greenside trap.

At 18 McIlroy pulled off a super save with his putter after another shot from the sand scooted well past the hole, leaving him a difficult 15-footer which dived sharply from left to right at the finish. Yet he read it perfectly and the ball just died in the cup.

As McIlroy's faith in his short game visibly grew, the less he needed it. By day's end, he was playing like a star reborn.

New world No 1 Luke Donald came home in four-under, stitching together a spectacular run of four successive birdies on the front nine to post a satisfying 70. Defending champion Justin Rose opened with 71 and Phil Mickelson shot 72.

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