Belfast Telegraph

Rory McIlroy storms back into form at US PGA Championship

By Karl MacGinty

Rory McIlroy found sanctuary from the gremlins in his swing and the hobgoblins of self-doubt that have assailed him this season as he posted a morale-boosting 69 in the first round of the US PGA Championship.

With Oak Hill doused by violent electrical storms in the wee small hours and given another fair sprinkling during a 70-minute delay as lightning crackled overhead once again in the afternoon, this formidable course was made vulnerable.

 

It was reminiscent of Congressional in 2011, when McIlroy took spectacular advantage of yielding conditions as he romped to his record-breaking first Major victory in the US Open.

 

After seven nightmarish months, the 24-year-old Holywood native cannot be expected to click straight back into scoring form as sensational as that which illuminated his march across the Ocean Course to glory at last year's PGA.

 

Yet he seized the opportunity presented him by Mother Nature yesterday with refreshing enthusiasm and aplomb, especially as he raced to three-under through his opening four holes.

 

Though he dropped a shot at the gruelling par-four fifth, this setback was brushed aside as McIlroy eased back to three-under through the turn by holing a 15-foot birdie putt at nine.

 

The elements certainly appeared to be on the youngster's side after a couple of loose shots typical of his play this year led to back-to-back bogeys at 10, where he flew the green, and 11, where his approach fell short.

 

In swept the second storm, giving McIlroy an opportunity to gather his thoughts. When play resumed, he confidently rolled in an eight-foot putt for birdie on the 12th green.

 

Even a three-putt bogey at 17 didn't leave too big a dent in his enthusiasm after he made a big par save at 18, crashing his ball out of deep rough on the right to the front fringe, followed by a gutsy two-putt for par to lie four off the lead.

 

"I got off to a fast start and felt at that stage that I could shoot a low one," said McIlroy. "Then I made bogey at 10 and 11, the horn sounded and, when we came back out, I made birdie at 12.

 

"That four-hole finishing stretch is tough, so, all things considered, one-under is not a bad score.

 

"Of all the Majors, I think this one suits me best. I finished third at Whistling Straits in my first PGA and, of course, won at Kiawah last year, so coming back here gives me some confidence."

 

Darren Clarke, who lifted the Claret Jug at Sandwich in 2011 and was Ireland's leading scorer at the British Open in Muirfield last month, also shot 69.

 

By recovering from a numbing double blow in the shape of back-to-back bogeys on his opening two holes, Clarke (44) showed the time he spent with mind guru Dr Bob Rotella this week certainly wasn't wasted.

 

Many took advantage of perfect scoring conditions. Jim Furyk, the fall-guy of US golf in 2012, threw down the gauntlet with his best round ever at the PGA, a fabulous 65 in the morning, and Masters champion Adam Scott took it up in the afternoon by plunging to five-under in the evening.

 

They led PGA Tour journeyman David Hearn, a Canadian, and England's Lee Westwood by one.

 

Pre-tournament favourite Tiger Woods tumbled down the leaderboard after a ham-fisted double-bogey at nine, his final hole, left the world No 1 with a frustrating 71.

 

That invincible air which surrounded Woods as he swept to his fifth victory of the season at Firestone last week quickly dissipated as he scrambled repeatedly to get himself out of trouble, ultimately failing at his final hole, the ninth, where he made an awful six.

 

Still, after signing for his 71, Tiger insisted: "I'm still right there. As of right now, I'm only six back and we've got a long way to go."

 

Whenever one sees Furyk in contention at a Major, Graeme McDowell, it seems, is never too far away.

 

These two US Open winners are past masters when it comes to picking their way around strategically challenging courses.

 

Oak Hill's greens were receptive yesterday and many of its fairways are a good deal more generous than the narrow, fast-running alleyways usually encountered at the US Open. Yet its rough is every bit as punitive and unforgiving.

 

So, as opening gambits go, McDowell was well satisfied with his 70 and delighted with the quality of his play after hitting 15 greens on the East Course in regulation.

 

Feeling that he underachieved at this summer's US and British Opens, McDowell is clearly pleased the hard work he invested in his game over the past three weeks may be about to pay off.

 

"I hit a lot of fairways and a lot of greens, which is what you're supposed to do on this golf course," he said.

 

"The pace of my putting was a little off down the first 11 holes – I subconsciously thought that the rain overnight would slow them down so I was a little heavy-handed and hit a few of my putts through the line.

 

"Still, I putted well, even if it didn't show on the scoreboard," added the 2010 US Open champion, conceding: "I probably made my three worst iron swings of the day coming in there."

 

After easing to one-under with a fantastic birdie at six, his 15th hole, where he hit a seven-iron to 14 feet and drained the putt, McDowell slipped-up at seven, missing his five-iron approach from mid-fairway "dead right, exactly what you're not supposed to do."

 

Shane Lowry, alongside Woods on one-over, was equally convinced about his ability to make a telling impact at the season's final Major, though his first priority yesterday afternoon was to work on his putting, which the Clara man felt undermined an otherwise pleasing performance.

 

"To be honest, I'm playing well enough to contend but I feel like my putting let me down," sighed Lowry. "I've no confidence from 10 feet in. I'm quite anxious over them.

 

"I'm getting in my own way and missing them.

 

"What's annoying is that I'm not hitting good putts, so I'll go out this afternoon and myself and Dermot (Byrne, his long-serving caddie) will work on it. I might give Neil (Manchip, his coach) a call as well.

 

"Ah, I'm sure it'll be okay," added the 26-year-old. "My putting's always inconsistent but if I keep playing the way I am and start holing a few, there'll be no stopping me."

 

Like McDowell, Lowry managed to steer clear of the deep rough for much of his round. He described it as 'cabbage' – the rain which fell overnight made it particularly dense.

 

Lowry holed a five-foot birdie putt at two but bogeyed three, where his tee shot pitched short of the elevated green and rolled back down the hill, and another at five after driving into the creek which meanders down the right side of the fairway.

 

Though he sank a lengthy birdie putt at 12, Lowry was furious with himself after failing to save par from four feet at the long 13th.

 

Further frustration came after he took three to get down from the fringe at 15, and even though he gave a little fist-punch after holing a 30-footer for birdie at 17, this gesture owed more to irony than ecstasy.

 

Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley shot 78, leaving him five shy of his US counterpart Tom Watson and nine behind their playing companion Clarke.

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