McIlroy survives pain game
US Open champion finishes on even par but scan could determine whether he continues
IMPRESSED by his bravado after that final round meltdown at The Masters and thrilled by his brilliance in winning the US Open, the world of golf witnessed Rory McIlroy's at his bravest in yesterday's first round of the PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club.
Defying intense pain after badly jarring his right wrist off a tree stump as he played a shot out of the rough on the third hole on The Highlands course, McIlroy amazed onlookers as he ground-out a hugely-impressive round of level-par 70.
That left him seven strokes off the lead set by Steve Stricker's record-equalling 63, a truly phenomenal effort by McIlroy, who finished the round with his wrist heavily bandaged.
Yet the drama didn't end for the 22-year-old Holywood hero when his final putt dropped.
Before heading for an MRI scan, which would determine if his bid for a second Major title can resume this morning, McIlroy first faced a rules enquiry into far-fetched allegations that he'd 'sought advice' from physio Cornell Dreisson as he prepared to play a shot off pine needles to the left of the fairway at the par-five 12th.
The question was raised by eagle-eyed TV viewers and media representatives, who thought McIlroy might have been influenced by a gesture from Dreisson, a South African who had been his physical trainer until last year, not to risk further injury by taking on the shot to the green.
The penalty for seeking advice is two strokes, but it was clear McIlroy had not actively sought Druisson's advice before taking the sensible option to simply chip his ball back onto the fairway.
He'd sink a 15-foot putt for birdie on that hole, one of three he'd make after injuring himself on the third when he smashed his club into a tree root playing a high-risk shot to the left of the hole.
McIlroy's club came flying out of his hands and was too badly damaged to be of further use. Of more immediate concern was the Northern Irishman's fitness as he held his right wrist and winced in pain.
The world No 4 was first given cold water to pour on the injury, then an ice- pack and it came as no surprise when he made bogey at the hole.
However, there were serious doubts surrounding his ability to carry on as McIlroy dropped his club in pain after hitting shots on the fourth and fifth holes.
A doctor finally reached McIlroy on the fifth hole and, after giving the youngster a thorough examination, he cleared him to resume, suggesting he'd jarred the nerve running up his arm, a painful condition, but one which offered no threat of further damage.
Despite all the distractions, McIlroy still managed to hold his game together, getting up and down from a greenside bunker for birdie at that fifth hole, before sinking a 20-foot putt at six to go one-under.
Another bogey came on the eighth before his arm was bandaged up and he did well to par the ninth for an outward level-par 35, an incredible achievement under the circumstances.
After sinking a 15-footer for birdie at 12, McIlroy made bogey out of a greenside bunker at 15; sank a six-footer to pick up another shot at 16 and then missed from four feet for his par at 17.
Pain was etched on McIlroy's face as he played his approach shot into the final green, but they're made of stern stuff in Ulster and he managed to finish in par for an heroic 70.
Sadly, his playing companion and Open Champion Darren Clarke shot 78.
While McIlroy fought his way through the pain-barrier, Tiger Woods endured even greater torment at yesterday.
Staggering is the only word which adequately describes Tiger's implosion on the Highlands Course yesterday as he slumped to a seven-over par 77, his worst opening round at the Major championships.
"I'm not down," he fumed afterwards. "I'm really angry right now. There are a couple of other words I could use beyond that."
Tiger's travails even overshadowed that sensational 63 by Stricker, which equalled the lowest-ever round shot at the Majors, a record the American now shares with McIlroy, Woods and 20 others. Vijay Singh and Greg Norman are the only two to have done it twice.
The sense of shock at Tiger's collapse was compounded by the brilliant start he had made to the tournament, racing into a share of the early lead on three-under by landing three birdies in his first five holes.
This scintillating opening stretch led many to believe that the former World No 1 might have rediscovered his magic touch with his physical fitness.
Last week at Firestone, Tiger returned from the knee and Achilles tendon injuries which force him out of the US and British Opens and he said on Wednesday: "I'm finally healthy. I'm excited that I can come out for the first time in a while and just play and have fun again."
It showed in his early play. Tiger's birdie on the challenging 14th hole, for example, was a match for any he's landed in winning 14 Majors, including four times at the US PGA.
After he'd drilled his tee shot down the tree line on the right and over the nest of bunkers guarding the dogleg, Tiger's ball came to rest in the heart of the fairway. Left with little more than an 8-iron to the elevated green, he played the shot exquisitely to four feet and holed the putt.
Yet Woods had flattered to deceive. Any illusion of greatness would be shattered within minutes as he hit his tee shot into the water guarding the front right-hand side of the green at this excruciating par-three hole, which played seven yards shorter than its full 260 yards yesterday.
That 4-iron was the first real pressure shot Woods faced and his creaking, freaking game wasn't equal to the challenge. Clearly rattled, he'd fail to get up and down after the penalty drop, leaving his 15-footer for bogey well short of the cup.
The last four holes here are as intimidating as any others in Major championship golf and, as his confidence visibly drained away, Tiger would take a brutal beating down that stretch.
He plumbed new depths at 16, blocking his tee shot into a fairway bunker; yanking his next onto a high bank short and left of the green, from where he chunked his chip into the sand short of the putting surface, on his way to a ragged bogey.
He visited sand twice on his way to an ugly double-bogey six at 18, where he hit his tee shot into the right fairway bunker and, after laying up short of the water at this gruelling par-four, pulled his approach into the trap to the left of the green.
Woods had plummeted from three-under to two-over in four holes and the nightmare was far from over as he dropped shots at the first, second and fourth holes before dumping another ball in the water on the way to a double-bogey six at the sixth.
The final insult came at the last, where he stumbled to yet another bogey on a day in which Tiger was humbled by his playing companion, Davis Love III, as America's 48-year old Ryder Cup captain smoothly completed a first round 68, nine shots better than Woods.
How the mighty had fallen. It will take a miracle for Woods to make the cut after posting his second-worst round at the Majors ... the worst was an 81 on Saturday at the 2002 Open at Muirfield, when he'd been battered by a vicious rain storm.
There were no such excuses yesterday.
Stricker's seven birdies included the 15th and 18th, two of the three that Woods double-bogeyed. The 44-year-old American was already seven-under after 14 holes, but parred his way in from there, missing a 12-foot chance on the 426-yard ninth.
Stricker led by two from another native of Wisconsin, Jerry Kelly.