Saturday 24 February 2018

Rory McIlroy blasts through the pain barrier in style in Ohio

Rory McIlroy studies the 13th green during the first round of the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield
Rory McIlroy studies the 13th green during the first round of the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield

Karl McGinty

Rory McIlroy defied the pain of a niggling knee injury as he blitzed the opposition and, at times, toyed with Muirfield Village, the pride and joy of host Jack Nicklaus, during a phenomenal first-round 63 at The Memorial.

Confidence soaring after his BMW PGA victory at Wentworth, McIlroy made playing companion and World No 1 Adam Scott, last Sunday’s winner at Colonial, appear pedestrian as he outscored the Aussie by six shots.

Phil Mickelson, meanwhile, dropped five shots in the last three holes for a nightmarish even-par 72 to trail McIlroy by nine as the young Ulsterman beat his previous best at Memorial by three.

Incredibly, after tweaking his left knee on the front nine, McIlroy managed to smash through the pain-barrier in a round which featured fabulous eagles at 11 and 15.

In between, the Holywood star (25) barely batted an eyelid as he made double-bogey out of an impossible plugged lie close to the back lip in a greenside bunker at 14. Six there was the only interruption to a scintillating run of seven threes followed by a lovely birdie two at the confounding 16th.

McIlroy showed the first signs of trouble at seven as he hit three-wood off the fairway. Wincing, he doubled over to massage the joint before limping away.

Still, after hitting an interesting flop-shot out of the deep right rough, the World No 6 holed from eight feet for birdie four.

If he won last week in the wake of his break-up with fiancée Caroline Wozniacki, now McIlroy needed to defy a potential breakdown in his left knee.

Pursuing the early clubhouse lead set by Irish Open champion Paul Casey, Chris Kirk and Masters-winner Bubba Watson with sweet 66s, McIlroy got it to four-under through the turn as he sank a 14-footer for birdie at nine.

He grimaced badly after hitting his shots off the tee and fairway at nine and sat down momentarily after his drive at 10. Visibly concerned, Jason Day asked if he needed medical assistance, but the Ulsterman carried on, making his fifth birdie of the day out of the right rough.

Any fears for the Ulsterman in the run-up to the US Open eased when he ripped a 339-yard shot down the 11th fairway and fired a 220-yard four-iron to 27 feet for the first of his eagle threes.

McIlroy then reduced the 529-yard 15th to a 304-yard drive and a 220-yard five-iron, followed by a deft 15-foot putt. As the cliché goes, beware the injured golfer!

“I don’t know what caused it,” said McIlroy, making no reference to a mid-round report on Golf Channel which quoted caddie JP Fitzgerald as saying the knee was tweaked in a recent incident in the gym.

“I’ll go and get treatment on it now,” the player added.

 “Hopefully with a little ice and some physio, it’ll be alright for tomorrow.”

Meanwhile, Padraig Harrington just took it on the chin when he learned there would be no special invite to the US Open. No hard feelings. No sour grapes.

Harrington admitted at yesterday’s launch of his new men’s golf clothing range for Dunnes Stores that the US Golf Association denied his written request for a special exemption to next Thursday week’s Pinehurst spectacular.

No matter how you dress it up, it’s very disappointing for the Dubliner to have to watch a second successive Major on TV this year after missing just one other this century, the 2005 Open at St Andrews.

“I asked for an invite from the USGA about four weeks ago,” explained Harrington, “because I’d been told there’s a special exemption category, but I was turned down.

The USGA has not issued special exemptions to the US Open since 2010, when Tom Watson and Vijay Singh were invited to play Pebble Beach.

“I’m not the least bit upset about this,” Harrington insisted. “It’s my fault I haven’t qualified. There are loads of different ways to qualify and I just didn’t make it.”

Ballyclare’s Gareth Maybin burst into contention yesterday with a first round 67 at the Nordea Masters in Malmo.

Maybin lay alongside leaders Swede Jens Dantrop (25) and England’s Eddie Pepperell (23) on six-under through 14 but then made his only bogey of a wind-tossed day at seven.

Shane Lowry, Simon Thornton and Kevin Phelan were one inside the projected cut on one-under after 71’s. Peter Lawrie shot 73 and Damien McGrane dropped five shots in the final six holes of his 77.


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