CHERRY HILL VILLAGE, Colo. –– When Justin Rose and K.J. Choi each opened with birdies on their first three holes, Cherry Hills Country Club looked more vulnerable than venerable. But those fast starts proved to be a mirage as no one scored lower than 3-under 67 in the first round of the BMW Championship.
Cherry Hills, which has hosted its share of majors over the years, reminded Phil Mickelson of one of his favorite courses.
“It reminds me of Augusta in the early ‘90s, where the course played very short,” Mickelson said. “The greens were the defense.”
When play was suspended for the day due to lightning with nine players still on the course, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, and Gary Woodland were the clubhouse leaders.
Here are 5 Things you need to know:
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1. SPIETH SPARKLES: Jordan Spieth and caddie Michael Greller remember Cherry Hills from the 2012 U.S. Amateur. Both player and caddie are staying with their host family from two years ago.
“I kind of almost feel like I’m back at a U.S. Amateur or a college event this week,” Spieth said. “This is one of the very few events where I may have more experience than a lot of guys. So I’ll take that mental attitude the next few days.”
Spieth, who played the back nine first, made back-to-back bogeys at Nos. 14 and 15 to drop over par. Spieth is in a mini-slump – for him. He hasn’t had a top-10 finish since the John Deere Classic in July. It must feel like an eternity. As he walked off the 15th, he told Greller, “No more mistakes.”
Spieth jump-started his round at the par-5 17th. One day earlier, Spieth told Greller to remind him that he wasn’t to go for the green in two unless he had a 5-iron or less. But after smoking his drive 311 yards, Spieth had 233 yards over water to the peninsula-shaped green and reached for the hybrid. Greller refreshed Spieth’s memory of their conversation from the day before, but it didn’t shake his confidence.
“I know, I know,” Spieth said, before launching the shot onto the green and making the second of his six birdies.
“That got him going,” Greller said.
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2. RORY’S RIDE: As if Rory McIlroy didn’t already have two of golf’s most precious trophies in his possession, he is driving the new BMW i8, a plug-in hybrid with “butterfly doors” and a six-figure sticker price, around town this week. It looks a bit like the Bat Mobile, only cooler.
McIlroy, who won the BMW Championship in 2012, was cruising along, a bogey-free 5 under through 15 holes thanks to four birdies in a five-hole stretch (Nos. 17, 1, 2, and 3).
Even when he misfired as he did at the fifth hole, finding the thick rough and an awkward lie, he could do no wrong. Afterward, McIlroy gushed about his escape artist abilities at the fifth.
“I was just trying to get it somewhere on the green. It just came out perfectly.” McIlroy said. “It was probably the best up-and-down I’ve had all year.”
But bogeys on two of his final three holes – the second the result of the type of mental gaffe he rarely makes – cost him.
“I was a bit frustrated with it,” he said. “A 67 is a really good start, even though it could have been a bit better.”
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3. NO CHERRY ON TOP: Cherry Hills, site of Arnold Palmer’s 1960 U.S. Open triumph, held its own in the first round. The course played fast and firm, and players noted that wedges from 150 yards were landing on the green and hopping over into the thick stuff.
“The greens are concrete,” Gary Woodland said.
Mr. Houdini himself, Phil Mickelson, found chipping to be difficult.
“You just can’t stop it,” he said. “You can’t hit it high enough or soft enough or get enough spin on it to get the ball to stop unless it’s just straight uphill.”
But that didn’t stop Mickelson from raving about Cherry Hills, where he won the 1990 U.S. Amateur.
“You’re able to hit driver on every single hole if you want,” Mickelson said. “If you miss it, you have some real problems.”
Among those who found Cherry Hill’s problematic: Ryan Moore, who shot 80; Ryder Cupper Patrick Reed, who carded 77; and Russell Knox, who was none too happy with his 74.
“I underestimated the course,” Knox said. “It’s one of the hardest courses I’ve ever played. There are just so many annoying little holes.”
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4. HENLEY HOPING FOR ATLANTA: Russell Henley’s goal at the beginning of this season was to make the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club.
Henley improved to 14th on the FedExCup points list entering Denver after sharing second last week at the Deutsche Bank Championship. That ranking is trending the right way, too, projected at 11th after an opening-round 68 at Cherry Hills.
“Winning the FedExCup would obviously mean a lot to anybody,” said Henley, who claimed his second Tour victory earlier this year at the Honda Classic. “Obviously, I want to win again, but the main goal at the start of this year was to make the Tour Championship, so things are looking good.”
The 25-year-old said he has played East Lake roughly eight to 10 times over the years, calling it “a great track, a very fun golf course.” He’s one step closer to closing out what has already been a terrific season.
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5. SHORT SHOTS: Phil Mickelson, who shot 70, likely needs a top-4 finish to qualify for the Tour Championship. His streak of 10 seasons with at least one victory is in jeopardy. … Just two of 54 players attempting to drive the green on No. 1 were successful in hitting the 353-yard hole. Ryan Palmer made eagle and Charley Hoffmann made birdie. … Chesson Hadley (No. 57 in the FedEx Cup Playoffs) is attempting to become the seventh rookie to advance to the Tour Championship. He took a step in the right direction by opening with a 68. Last week, he made a putter change – from his trusty Odyssey Two-Ball to an Odyssey White Ice No. 5 – and so far, so good. … Erik Compton on his 1-under 69: “I played great except for a 4-putt at 11,” he said. “And I almost 5-whacked it. I could’ve been there all day.” … Chris Stroud snapped his driver in two after his tee shot on his final hole, but finished with 69. … Ernie Els leads the field in strokes gained-putting (3.432) through one round. … Jack Vickers, who hosted The International at Castle Pines Country Club from 1986-2006, was presented the PGA Tour Lifetime Achievement Award on Thursday night in conjunction with the opening round of the BMW Championship. Vickers, 89, who made his fortune in oil, gas, and mineral properties, is the 11th recipient of the award, and the first since Gary Player in 2012.
– Mike Mazur contributed to this report