This cannot have been the scene Rory McIlroy dreamt of when ploughing through five weeks of tiresome recuperation from a snapped ankle ligament. Standing in Lake Michigan, right trouser leg rolled up, attempting to save par on the 5th hole at Whistling Straits. Hardly glamorous stuff.
McIlroy got up and down from the water alright, in emphasising the battling qualities which not only led to the world No1 appearing in the 97th US PGA Championship at all, but left him well placed at the end of round one. In testing conditions, the most so of Thursday, McIlroy carded 71; it would have been better, but for missed opportunities on the back nine and a scrappy bogey at the last.
The 26-year-old would probably have taken this for his return to competitive action. What he will now hope for is a more benign Friday morning in which to piece together round two. Crucially, he has displayed no obvious sign of physical discomfort at all. McIlroy is five from the lead with 54 holes to play but clearly retains a live chance of retaining the Wanamaker Trophy. McIlroy matched the score of his playing partner, Jordan Spieth, who scrambled superbly well. The third member of the group, the Open champion Zach Johnson, shot 75.
Dustin Johnson, as has become customary, quickly planted himself as the man to catch. One of the 31-year-old’s most painful major stumbles – there have been a few – arrived at this venue in 2010. Redemption will come quickly if Johnson can build upon a terrific opening round of 66. He will be the first golfer in history to lead three straight majors after day one – assuming there are no late surprises.
“I prefer to be in the lead,” added Johnson of his major tactics. “But you have still just got to play your game, no matter where you’re at, especially in majors. When you try to push and try to make things happen, that’s when you can make some big numbers at the majors.
“Today I thought I did a great job of just staying patient, hitting the shots that the course allowed me to hit. And I struck the ball well today. So I was very pleased.”
Johnson was later and briefly joined at six under par by David Lingmerth. The Swede, however, closed on minus five.
Among others in early positions of prominence are Matt Kuchar and Jason Day, who both started with 68s. Justin Rose is one shot worse off, an admirable effort given the Englishman was two over par after just four holes. Rickie Fowler slipped to a 73.
“You can never win it on Thursday, you can only lose it,” Rose said. “That’s obviously a good job done today. Obviously when you go and shoot seven, eight or nine under par in a major in the first round, it’s a lot of pressure to absorb for the rest of the week, because you’re in contention.”
Tiger Woods used to do that kind of thing. Now, he faces a Friday battle to avoid a third missed major cut in succession after opening with a 75. That scenario requires further context; between 1997 and 2013, Woods only failed to survive for the weekend of a major three times. This year, his scoring average in the first round of majors is a staggeringly poor 76.
Here, Woods’s primary woes were on the greens but he was far from imperious – despite his own claims to the contrary – elsewhere. His behaviour should be included in that poor form; a litany of swearing from the 14-time major winner was once again clearly audible on television.
“That was probably one of the worst putting rounds I’ve had in a very long time,” said Woods. “I just had no feel at all for the speed. It was awful. My speed was bad, hence speed determines line, so that was off.
“I’ve had good putting rounds and had ball striking days on those days and then the flip side of it. So, I have just got to get a combo right and then have it for three more days.
“This season is pretty much over very soon. But the year’s not. I still can do things overseas, I have my tournament down in the Bahamas. There’s plenty of golf to be played globally. So the season, it is what it is, but calendar year I still have a lot of golf left.”
Just not in Wisconsin, it would appear.
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