Tuesday 20 August 2019

'I can't remember the last time I played a round of golf without a birdie' - Rory McIlroy off pace at US PGA Championship

Rory McIlroy will play for Ireland at next year's Olympics
Rory McIlroy will play for Ireland at next year's Olympics
Kevin Palmer

Kevin Palmer

Rory McIlroy struggled to find his spark during a frustrating opening round of 72 at the US PGA Championship, as he battled to stay in the tournament at the demanding Bethpage Black course.

Aiming to win his first major title since lifting the title in this event in 2014, McIlroy's putter failed to fire as he finished at two over par after a disappointing afternoon on the greens.

Playing late in the day when the greens may not have been in their best condition did not help McIlroy, but he was outscored by playing partners Phil Mickelson and Jason Day, who both finished with one under par rounds of 69.

McIlroy rolled in a birdie at the 18th hole to end his second round on a high, but it was a story of near misses for the Irishman as he finished a long way behind leader Brookes Koepka.

After starting his round with a bogey under the first hole, he dropped another shot at the eighth hole before a wayward chip on the 15th left McIlroy three over par.

He needed a moment of inspiration in the final three holes and after missing a chance at the 17th hole, he came up with his first birdie of the day to end on a high at the last hole.

"I can't remember the last time I played a round of golf without a birdie," said McIlroy. "I was like, 'I'd better birdie this last hole', and thankfully I did. It was nice to finish that way.

"Hopefully that birdie on the last was the turning point, finish on a positive note and come back tomorrow and hopefully get into red figures for the tournament.

"If you can put the ball in play and give yourself chances, I felt like I gave myself enough chances to shoot something in the mid 60s. But it gives me hope that I can go out tomorrow and shoot a low one.

"There's definitely a big difference between a 75 and a 63, but around this golf course, the margins are fine. And if you miss the fairway by a yard or two, it can make the difference between hitting a shot into 10 feet and having a birdie chance or having to get up-and-down from 100 yards for par.

"But I did that well. I hit enough fairways, felt like I hit enough greens, and hit good putts, and some days they just find a way to not go in. The greens were starting to get a touch bumpy, so that was making it difficult in terms of speed and not trying to be too aggressive with your putts and leaving yourself those three and four footers all the time.

"The birdie at the last was great and if I make a few more putts and get myself into red numbers going into the weekend, I'd be pretty happy."

Koepka carded seven birdies in a flawless opening round of 63 to set a new course record on the fearsome Black Course where Woods was the only player to finish under par in winning the 2002 US Open.

Defending champion Koepka equalled the lowest round in tournament history to leave playing partner Tiger Woods trailing in his wake.

Masters champion Woods had threatened to recover from a nightmare start when he eagled the fourth, his 13th hole of the day, to get under par for the first time, only to drop three shots in the next four holes and finish two over, nine behind Koepka.

"My putter was hot today, I'm not going to lie," Koepka said after becoming the first player in US PGA history to record multiple rounds of 63 in his career. "It hasn't felt that good in a long time.

"This is a crazy day, seven under is not going to happen every day, but I parred two par fives and missed a five footer on number 11. It could have been a helluva round, I just need to clean a few things up.

"I think I'm still learning, understanding my game and I think over the next few years I'm excited for what's to come. I understand a lot more about my misses, where to hit it and in major championships I just suck it up; you don't always have to aim at the flag like you do in regular events."

New Zealand's Danny Lee is just a shot off the lead after carding a brilliant 64 in the breezier afternoon conditions, with England's Tommy Fleetwood, who finished second to Koepka in last year's US Open at another Long Island venue Shinnecock Hills, another three strokes back after a 67.

"It doesn't always go right, but I enjoy the toughest courses and I enjoy getting in a dogfight out there with the toughest courses in the world," Fleetwood said.

"It was a little more playable than the practice days have been but overall still a brutal golf course and as soon as you're out of position, you're going to struggle. Luckily enough, I hit plenty of good golf shots."

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