Tuesday 23 January 2018

McIlroy in the groove and eager for the fray

Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlory walk down a fairway at Whistling Straits on their way to a pair of first round 71s
Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlory walk down a fairway at Whistling Straits on their way to a pair of first round 71s
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

Rory McIlroy is back and battling to mount a strong defence of his US PGA title at Whistling Straits.

The 26-year-old insisted the ruptured ankle ligament on his left leg was strong enough to play competitively again after a five-week absence and everything he did yesterday supported that statement.

There was not much missing in his game as he finished with one under par 71, bar the extra sharpness that comes with regular competitive golf.

McIlroy more than held his own in the championship's marquee three ball which included the winners of the season's three previous Majors - Jordan Spieth (Masters, US Open), and Zach Johnson.

Honours ended even between McIlroy and Spieth who both scored 71, while Johnson had to settle for 74.

The golden trio had seen Dustin Johnson throw down the gauntlet to the field with a morning 66.

McIlroy, Spieth, and Zach Johnson played in tougher conditions, with a warm but strong breeze adding to the challenge.

They kept it pretty friendly on the front nine, each scoring level par 36, but it wasn't for the want of trying.

McIlroy started bogey, birdie, on his first two holes, and finished bogey, birdie on the eighth and ninth.

Johnson claimed three birdies, but gave them back with three bogeys, while Spieth narrowly missed some birdie chances and had to settle for nine pars.

McIlroy would not be the man he is without doing some things differently.

Having missed the green on the long fifth hole, McIlroy's ball landed on a muddy lie on the very edge of Lake Michigan.

Instead of taking a penalty drop, he pulled up his right trouser leg, climbed down into the water and literally splashed out a shot to nine feet.

A smoothly-stroked putt earned him a deserved par.

On the par-5 11th, McIlroy was pin high, 14 feet away from the flagstick in light rough and his eagle putt just slid by the cup, leaving him a tap-in for birdie to go one under par.

Spieth bogeyed that hole but recovered for his first birdie of the day on the short 12th hole.


McIlroy went on to boom a drive 359 yards down the 573 yard 16th and grabbed another birdie to get to two under.

The four-time Major winner was disappointed to take a five on the par-4 18th after missing the green and failing to get the ball close enough.

The rest of the Irish, with the exception of Graeme McDowell, had a tough day.

McDowell spoke before the round of the need for a calm, restrained approach to this golf course.

"There is a premium on accuracy - fairways and greens.

"It's the kind of course you are not going to scramble well on, because if you do hit it in trouble, you are in big trouble," said McDowell.

The 2010 US Open winner stuck to the game-plan pretty well through his front nine, reeling off seven pars and a birdie four on the long fifth hole.

He was punished for an errant drive by playing his second shot out of the rough to a bunker 35 feet from the hole.

From there he took three more to get down, but at level par, there was no great damage done.

McDowell made a fine sand save on the 11th for a birdie four to reach one under again and extended that to two under with a one-putt birdie three from eight feet on the 15th.

Just when he looked good for a strong finish, McDowell went into reverse and reeled off a bogey on each of the last three holes, finishing up on one over par 73.

Shane Lowry, not surprisingly, struggled to get over the huge emotional and physical effort he expended in winning the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational on Sunday.

Lowry has been deluged with messages of goodwill and congratulations from home and abroad, and fellow Tour pros on the driving range and putting green have let him know how impressed they were with his achievement.

The question was whether Lowry could bring his Firestone performance to Whistling Straits.

Like the other Irish competitors, he had to deal with the strong winds in the afternoon, and on this bunker-strewn course, any ragged play was going to be punished.

He started with a par four, but bogeyed the par-5 second hole, where he was twice in bunkers.

Lowry got snagged up on the next hole, the 200 yard, par-3 third.

He missed the green right, and tried to play a flop shot but the ball ran across the putting surface and into rough where it came perilously close to going into the lake.

He was on the green in three and took two putts for double bogey five.

The Offaly native had further problems on the sixth and ninth, each of which he bogeyed to turn in 41.


Back-to-back birdies on the 10th and 11th holes suggested a revival might be possible, but those hopes were dashed with three consecutive bogeys, followed by three pars and a 78 total.

Afterwards Lowry spoke of the contrasting fortunes between Sunday's 66 and yesterday's six over par.

"I'm a little bit disappointed but then I didn't play very well out there, and while I played lovely in practice,I don't know what it was out there today," he said.

"I also struggled with the pace of the greens but I am not going to stand here and claim being tired or anything like that, and while I did feel a little tired, it was no excuse as I made some poor decisions out there.

"My head seemed to be all over the place and I definitely wasn't the calm fella who won at Firestone last Sunday.

"It was just one of those days that things didn't go for me, and I need to get out there tomorrow and try and shoot a good score and see what happens after that," he said.

Darren Clarke was five over for his first nine and despite two birdies in the inward half, he, too, had to accept a 78. Padraig Harrington, one of 15 past PGA Championship winners in the field, kept everything solid for the first four holes before dropping two shots on the 603 yard par-5 fifth hole, and taking a bogey five on the sixth hole to go to three over with a third of the round played.

Harrington has missed the cut in the last two PGA championships and his bid to end that streak has not been helped by the injury to his right knee which would have caused him to withdraw if this were a regular tournament.

He turned into the back nine on 40 and permitted himself a wry smile with his first birdie of the day, courtesy of a beautifully-struck 9-iron to three feet on the 11th.

The smile got broader on the par-4 14th, where he pitched in from almost 40 yards. Par on 15 left him one under for the back nine and three over for the tournament.

His playing partner Phil Mickelson was erratic but somehow managed emerged with an even par round.

USPGA Championship, live, Sky Sports 4, 7.0

Irish Independent

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