McIlroy (71) sluggish but still in contention
SANDWICH, England – The 65s are nice, but the majority of majors aren’t won in the manner Rory McIlroy claimed the U.S. Open. That’s why Thursday’s 71, while nothing special when held to the high standard set at his last start, was enough for McIlroy to be content with his first day’s work at Royal St. George’s.
McIlroy, who hasn’t played since his eight-shot U.S. Open victory, bogeyed two of his first three holes Thursday, but played his final 15 holes in 1 under. He’s one of several big names who won’t be on the leaderboard come day’s end, but are still in contention for the Claret Jug.
“It wasn’t ideal, but I stayed really patient,” he said. “I’m happy with 71. It’s a nice start, a solid start.”
This isn’t that softened Congressional layout that McIlroy tore apart with near-perfect iron play. This is the Open Championship, where balls stumble and bumble over slopes and end up in unexpected locations, where sunshine is a sacred commodity.
Thomas Bjorn and Miguel Angel Jimenez made Royal St. George’s look easy early Thursday, shooting 65 and 66, respectively. It wasn’t that way for many of the morning’s main attractions, though.
Luke Donald, fresh off winning on links at last week’s Scottish Open, shot 71. A birdie from the left rough on the difficult 17th helped salvage his round. Donald, who leads the PGA Tour in its new putting stat (strokes gained-putting), had a handful of lipouts and close calls on the greens.
“It was tricky,” he said. “The conditions weren’t easy. The wind at times was very gusty, but I felt like I played a pretty solid round.”
Sergio Garcia scrambled to a 70 while fighting his driver. Rickie Fowler, who was paired with McIlroy, also matched par.
“It has a feeling like he’s a hero over here now,” Fowler said. Plenty of hyperbole has been used to describe McIlroy in recent weeks. He showed Thursday that he was human.
A bit of his swagger was missing. McIlroy strode around Congressional with his head held high and shoulders pulled back. On Thursday, he took frustrated swipes at the air and made the gesticulations of a man mystified by this game.
McIlroy’s poor start brought up questions about a post-Open hangover. Others wondered if his extended break was to blame. He took a similar-length break before this year’s Masters, though, and was the talk of the town until an early visit to Augusta’s cabins.
Thursday’s round guaranteed that the Open won’t be a runaway victory. He can still get himself in contention come Sunday, though.
As can Donald, and Fowler, and plenty of other players who kept it around par on a gloomy, breezy day on England’s southeastern coast. Nick Watney, a pre-tournament favorite because of his recent AT&T National victory and success at St. Andrews, shot 74, but was uplifted by birdies on Nos. 16 and 17. Dustin Johnson, 4 over after 12 holes, used an ace to help himself get back to 70.
Fowler can attest to the possibilities over an Open’s final 54 holes. He opened last year’s Open with 79, but still finished 14th. Today’s round included a holed 80-foot putt for birdie on No. 1, as well as a 1-footer that failed to find the hole. Golf giveth, and golf taketh away.
“You can’t win it the first day, but you can obviously put yourself pretty far behind,” Fowler said.