Relieved Rory McIlroy breaks par to stay in contention in Atlanta
Rory McIlroy was relieved to break par after a rollercoaster opening round in the Tour Championship kept his hopes of a securing a payday of 11.5million US dollars alive in Atlanta.
With only the top five at East Lake in full control of their own destiny, sixth-placed McIlroy knew he had to win the final event of the PGA Tour season and see other results go his way to claim the overall FedEx Cup title.
The chances of that looked slim after McIlroy carded back-to-back double bogeys to reach the turn in two over par, but the four-time major winner birdied four holes in a row on the back nine to card an opening two-under-par 68 matched by playing partner Paul Casey.
Casey, who started the week fifth in the standings, was two under par after five holes before driving into the water on the eighth to double bogey, but ended his round in style with an eagle from 30 feet on the last.
That left the European pair two shots off the lead shared by FedEx Cup leader Dustin Johnson, Kevin Chappell and Hideki Matsuyama, with world number one Jason Day alongside Kevin Kisner and Si Woo Kim on three under.
McIlroy recovered from t hree-putting the first hole with a hat-trick of birdies from the third, only to hit a poor chip to the seventh and compound the mistake with another three-putt, before finding water with his approach to the next.
The 27-year-old admits his putting remains a "work in progress" despite winning the Deutsche Bank Championship since starting work with coach Phil Kenyon, but birdied the 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th from close range to remain firmly in contention for a third victory of the season.
"It would be okay for the Ryder Cup next week I think, playing like this," McIlroy joked on Sky Sports. "I'm just happy that the score at the end of the day is under par.
"I said to JP (Fitzgerald, his caddie) out there, I am mixing a lot of bad with a lot of good so if I can eradicate the mistakes, seven birdies around this golf course is pretty good and as you can see, once I get a couple of birdies I get some confidence and momentum.
"I am actually more comfortable on the breaking putts. The ones that I missed were dead straight."
Johnson can theoretically finish as low as 29th in the 30-man field and still win the 10million US dollar bonus for winning the FedEx Cup, but the US Open champion set about doing far better with five birdies and a solitary bogey in his 66.
The world number two is one of eight members of the United States Ryder Cup team in the field, with captain Davis Love naming his final wild card after the tournament finishes on Sunday evening.
World number seven Bubba Watson, Justin Thomas and Daniel Berger are the favourites to be selected, with Thomas making the best first impression with an opening 68 matched by defending champion and good friend Jordan Spieth.
Two-time Masters champion Watson could only manage a 72 after dropping shots on the 16th and 17th, with Berger struggling to a 74 after playing his first eight holes in five over par.