SOUTHPORT, England – Rory McIlroy couldn’t have asked for better conditions in the 146th Open Championship. Ditto for Sergio Garcia, Rickie Fowler, Justin Rose, Tommy Fleetwood, Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson.
They didn’t take advantage of them, but at least McIlroy managed to salvage his round with a display of damage limitation over the back nine to post a 1-over 71. He has caddie JP Fitzgerald to thank for that.
McIlroy was 4 over standing on the sixth tee and heading for a third consecutive missed cut following the Irish and Scottish Opens when JP gave him a good talking to.
“I was nervous going out,” McIlroy admitted. “I was a little anxious, timid. Probably just not as much belief in myself as I should have had. JP gave me a good talking on the sixth tee box, and sort of reminded me of who I was.
“He said: ‘You’re Rory McIlroy: What the (expletive) are you doing?’
“It definitely helped. It kept me positive. He did a great job.”
McIlroy bogeyed the 499-yard, par-4 sixth hole, but that‘s no sin: it’s the hardest hole on the golf course because it used to be a par 5. However, he played the next 12 holes in 4 under to shoot a 71 and is six shots off the lead.
“I could be standing here and hit 18 greens and shot 1 over and missed every putt and feel terrible but, because of the way I started, I actually feel really positive. It’s a bit like the Ryder Cup at Medinah in 2012. We were 10-6 down on Saturday night but we felt like we were right in with a chance, because we won the last two points.
“Even though there’s a lot of golf left, in other circumstances it might have been a disappointing day, but just with the way I finished, I feel really good.”
Rose, Fowler and Johnson matched McIlroy’s 71. The Englishman got onto the leaderboard early when he moved to 2 under after three to tie the lead but stumbled coming home. Johnson only made one birdie all day, at the second, and didn’t take advantage of the two back nine par 5s. Fowler was a model of inconsistency with five bogeys and four birdies on his card.
Garcia was two shots worse off after a 73. The Masters winner looked less than masterful, as he admitted.
“It was a terrible day,” Garcia said. “I didn’t hit many fairways. Even the good drives I hit, I didn’t hit the fairways. My iron play wasn’t great. And the birdie chances I had early on I didn’t make them. And then I started hitting some bunkers.”
Mickelson also shot 73. He didn’t make a birdie in his round, like Johnson failing to take advantage of the easily reachable back nine par 5s. Jim “Bones” McKay probably had a better day commentating than his former boss.
Fleetwood carried the hopes of hometown Southport on his shoulders, but returned a 76. He needs a miracle if he is to be around for the weekend.
McIlroy just needs an under-par round to get back into the tournament. He tees off at 9:47 a.m. with the weather forecast to get worse as the day progresses.
“If I go out tomorrow before the bad conditions and shoot something in the 60s, I feel like I’ll be right there for the weekend. I was 4 over through three holes last year in Boston (Deutsche Bank Championship). And won that tournament. So I’ve done it before.”
He might just need JP to remind him of that constantly. Several other marquee names might need similar pep talks.