McIlroy made to work hard
Rory McIlroy was happy to grind out an opening 69 to keep his bid for a first FedEx Cup title - and with it a bonus of £6million - on track in the Tour Championship in Atlanta on Thursday.
McIlroy carded four birdies and three bogeys at East Lake to finish one under par, three shots off the lead shared by Chris Kirk and Billy Horschel.
Kirk, Horschel, Bubba Watson, Hunter Mahan and McIlroy are the five players who know victory on Sunday would also see them secure the overall FedEx Cup title won by Sweden's Henrik Stenson last year.
And with Watson one off the lead alongside Jim Furyk, Patrick Reed and Jason Day after a 67, Mahan was the only one of the quintet at the wrong end of the leaderboard after a 74 left him joint 27th in the 29-man field.
McIlroy pushed his drive on the first and saw his attempted recovery shot clip a tree and travel only 40 yards, but the 25-year-old's third shot grazed the side of the hole as it rolled past and he holed from eight feet for par.
A superb approach to two feet set up McIlroy's first birdie of the day on the third, but he promptly gave that shot back after a poor drive on the fourth and hit an even worse drive on the next.
Fortunately for the four-time major winner, his ball bounced out of the trees and allowed him to find the green with his approach and make par, while he holed from six feet on the sixth to get back into red figures.
That did not last long after two visits to sand on the seventh cost him a bogey, but McIlroy again rebounded immediately with a birdie from eight feet on the eighth.
McIlroy's long and straight driving has been his major weapon this season, helping him win the Open Championship, WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and US PGA in consecutive appearances.
However, the Northern Irishman was struggling to find the fairways at East Lake and another errant drive found a fairway bunker on the 10th, from where he had to settle for par.
McIlroy then bogeyed the 11th after duffing his second shot from the fringe and was looking increasingly frustrated as birdie chances went begging, but he holed from 10 feet on the 17th and saved par from a greenside bunker on the 18th to end in good spirits.
"It was a grind out there," McIlroy told Sky Sports 4. "It feels like every day for the last couple of weeks has been a grind, just getting up and trying to give 100 per cent on the golf course.
"It just seemed like every time I made a step forward I seemed to get knocked back on the next hole. I kept the round together well on the back nine, made a good up and down on 16 and a great birdie on 17, so even though it was not the best score, I'm pretty pleased with how I finished."
Speaking about the motivation of winning the FedEx Cup title, McIlroy added: "It's very big. Regardless of whatever is at stake in terms of prize money, I would just like to win the FedEx Cup. With the year that I've had I really want to finish it off well."
However, he faces some stiff competition from the likes of Kirk and Horschel, who won the last two play-off events, the Deutsche Bank Championship and BMW Championship respectively.
Kirk's win came in the final event before Tom Watson announced his Ryder Cup wild cards, but was not enough to earn him a trip to Gleneagles later this month.
The 29-year-old carded a flawless 66 containing four birdies, the last coming when he chipped in from 25 yards on the 17th, while Horschel also returned an error-free scorecard.
Day had five birdies and two bogeys in his 67, despite losing his caddie Col Swatton to a back injury after seven holes. Day had to withdraw from the BMW Championship due to his own back problems and joked: "It's contagious in my group right now."
Watson carded seven birdies, a double bogey and two bogeys in his 67, the left-hander dropping out of a share of the lead when he failed to get up and down from a greenside bunker on the 18th.
Sergio Garcia was aided by a chip-in birdie on the 17th as he matched McIlroy's 69, while Justin Rose recorded a 72 and Martin Kaymer a 73.