Sport Golf

Monday 9 December 2019

Rory McIlroy digs deep to keep jackpot hopes alive

Rory McIlroy tees off on the third hole during the first round of the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club
Rory McIlroy tees off on the third hole during the first round of the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club

Karl MacGinty

RORY McILROY showed more grit than genius in cloying heat and humidity at America's Tour Championship yesterday to keep alive his prospects of hitting an $11.44m jackpot at East Lake on Sunday.

Fatigue clearly has dulled the razor edge which allowed the 25-year-old cut a swathe of glory through the British Open, Bridgestone World Golf Championship and US PGA this summer as he charged back to the top of the world.

McIlroy is one of many players in the 29-man field at this FedEx Cup finale in Atlanta to be feeling the pace as we near the end of an exhausting run of four $8m end-of-season playoffs in succession.

Yet nobody has expended as much adrenaline as McIlroy in the past couple of months and all Europe should be grateful he has a week off to recharge his batteries before the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles.

The Holywood native opened his eighth tournament in 10 weeks with a hard-grinding, one-under par 69 that left him tied-11th, three shy of the lead held-jointly by Deutsche Bank winner Chris Kirk and BMW champ Billy Horschel with a brace of bogey-free 66's.

McIlroy's playing companion yesterday, Bubba Watson, surfed a wave of confidence into a share of third with a three-under 67 matched by 2010 Tour Champion and FedEx Cup-winner Jim Furyk, young fellow-American Patrick Reed and Australian Jason Day.

Two-time Masters champion Watson, runner-up to Horschel at Cherry Hills, showed his morale is soaring by recovering from a double-bogey six out of the trees at 13 with three straight birdies. Mind you, a bogey four at 18, where he failed to get up-and-down from the right trap, surely stung.

Ironically, Day, who has endured thumb, vertigo and, in recent weeks, back trouble during an injury-wracked season, lost caddie and swing coach Col Swatton to a crippling sacroiliac joint problem after seven holes and mental coach Jason Goldsmith stepped into the breech.

McIlroy and Watson, figure prominently with Horschel, Kirk and the flagging Hunter Mahan among the five points leaders who'll lift the FedEx Cup and bag that eye-popping $10m bonus should they take the $1.44m first prize in the Tour Championship on Sunday.

"I was happy with that score, because with those guys playing so well, I couldn't afford to shoot a high number and that 69 could easily have been a 73 or 74 in past years," he said. "It was a real grind because I was hitting it left and right on the front nine. So shooting below par was pretty encouraging.

Firing

"I haven't been firing on all cylinders throughout these FedEx events, but I've managed a fifth and an eighth and I'm still in with a great chance of winning overall. I really want this win to put the icing on the cake of a great year, with two Majors and a World Golf Championship title already in the bag."

McIlroy tried to defuse a social media storm over his suggestion on Wednesday that Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are on the back nine of their career. "I just couldn't believe the backlash," he explained. "I've said far worse things to Tiger's face. It wasn't like I was writing them off at all.

"I said that we'll see them both back at this event plenty of times," he added. "But when I saw the reaction I thought 'hang on, have I said something wrong here?' I don't think so. I know those guys both really well and I don't think I said anything out of order."

While McIlroy thrilled all with his glorious shot-making during high summer, he needed to show another, more dogged side as a spectacular par save on East Lake's 424 yards first hole set the tone for a day of hard graft

After carving his 3-wood right into the tree-line, his ball sinking into deep Bermuda rough, McIlroy's his path to the green was blocked by a large tree. His attempt to punch-out low caught a branch and disappeared into the deep, wiry grass short of the fairway, leaving him McIlroy with a daunting, semi-blind approach across sand to a tight pin.

He rose splendidly to this challenge, hitting a wonderful wedge straight at the flag and his ball almost kissed the lip of the cup before rolling out to eight feet. McIlroy holed the putt for a formidable four.

The World No 1 also left his driver in the bag at the third. He found the fairway there for the first of just five times yesterday. Though his ball landed 55 yards short of Watson, McIlroy's strategy proved correct as he hit a 141 yards approach four feet past the pin and made the putt to match the American's birdie.

Both took driver at four, hitting their tee shots into the right fairway bunker; were short of the green in two and failed to get up-and-down for a brace of untidy bogeys. The Holywood star made an eight-footer for birdie two at six; went from fairway bunker to greenside trap for a bogey five at seven and holed from nine feet for birdie at eight.

A poor chip out of the left rough at 11 led to bogey four but a majestic birdie at 17, set-up by a phenomenal 329 yard drive, and a fine par-save out of sand at the last, suggested McIlroy's 'A' game's not that far away.

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