Less than a week after his impressive come-from-behind victory at the European Tour’s BMW PGA Championship, Rory McIlroy continued to carry the momentum into the first round of The Memorial, firing a scorching nine-under 63 to take a three-shot lead over Paul Casey, Chris Kirk and Bubba Watson.
McIlroy nearly tied the course record (11-under 61) at Muirfield Village had it not been for a mistake on the 14th — with a wedge in his hand, no less, which led to a somewhat costly double-bogey. However, he bounced back with his second eagle on the back nine, rolling in a 15-footer on the par-5 15th to erase his error on the previous hole.
Rory kicked off his round with birdies in two of the first four holes, then picked up more birdies on two of the last three holes on the front nine. He made the turn at four-under without doing anything too magical.
It wasn’t until he started the back nine that he caught fire. He hit a pretty average drive on the par-4 10th into the right rough and then knocked a dart to four feet for birdie. He rolled it in with ease.
Next, on the 11th, McIlroy striped his drive around the corner splitting the fairway and setting himself up for a perfect second shot into the reachable-in-two par-5. He took advantage of his position and stuck his second shot to about 27 feet pin-high. He stepped over his putt and stroked the putter and watched the ball roll down the perfect line before disappearing into the hole for an eagle 3.
“That’s when I thought that it could be a pretty good round,” said McIlroy in his post-round presser.
From there, McIlroy was nearly flawless, despite battling a tweaked left knee.
Rory hurt himself on the 7th and he was rubbing the area around his knee in between shots for the rest of the day, but it didn’t seem to hurt his game.
“I felt like I tweaked it on my second shot on the 7th,” said McIlroy. “I wear spikes, so sometimes your foot can get stuck in the ground and you can torque your knee a little too much.
“I think that’s what I did, I tweaked it. The inside of it is sore, it’s a little swollen. Go see the physio and get some treatment and get ice on it, and hopefully it will be okay for tomorrow.
“I haven’t really had it before. Sort of strange. So I came here with tweaked my back on Friday evening at Wentworth and played through that at the weekend last weekend. And I tweaked my knee here this week. But I’ll be okay. Some treatment and I should be fine for the morning.”
You know what they say: Beware the injured golfer!
How did he manage dealing with the pain?
“It was sort of like I tweaked it and then you have three or four minutes until the next shot,” said McIlroy. “So you can sort of walk it off a little bit and it eases. And after the next shot it’s painful again and you can walk it off.
“When you’re over the shot, you’re not thinking about your knee, you’re thinking about the shot at hand and what you’re trying to do with it. And I knew it was going to hurt a little going after a couple of tee shots or hitting those 2-irons into the par 5s, but I knew that I’d get over it and get on with it.”
Don’t worry, though — he’ll have it looked after and be ready for the U.S. Open.
After draining another 15-footer on 13 for birdie, Rory pulled a wedge into the bunker on the short risk-reward par-4 14th, leaving himself with a difficult third shot on the downhill slope from a plugged lie. His first attempt didn’t out of the sand stayed in the bunker and then his second ran past the hole and stopped just in the rough on the other side of the green, nearly rolling down the hill into the hazard.
“I was plugged on the downslope on 14,” he said. “So it was either leave the ball in the bunker just in front of me and then try and get it up-and-down from there.
“What I was trying to do was get the ball out of the bunker and sort of around the front of the green so I could have a putt up the green and make my 5 and take my medicine. And just didn’t come off the way that I wanted it to.
“Then where it was in the bunker, I sort of had to go for the pin. If I had to hit a good bunker shot, I might have been able to get it within six or eight feet, but it just ran on.”
Instead of letting the mistake kill his momentum, Rory battled back with yet another eagle on the par-5 15th. In fact, he wasn’t even that bothered by the double-bogey as he was walking off the 14th green to the 15th tee because he was too busy thinking about how much his knee would hurt after bombing his drive on the next hole.
“I was honestly just thinking about how sore my knee was going to be after I hit my tee shot on 15 really hard,” he said, laughing.
McIlroy, who made massive headlines on the eve of last week’s tournament when he announced that he had called off his engagement with tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, maintains that the difficult decision hasn’t impacted his play one way or the other and perhaps the relief of it hasn’t taken a weight off his shoulders and freed up his game. Instead, he says he could sense his form coming around after four straight top-10s leading into last week’s victory.
“I don’t think it’s anything more than just being confident with my game,” said McIlroy. “I was expecting this to happen. I’ve been playing well. I’ve been posting good numbers, good rounds. And I knew my game was close.
“Honestly I don’t think it’s anything to do with what’s happening off the golf course. It’s just I’ve been trending in the right direction, and it’s starting to all come together.”
McIlroy could tell he was making a turn for the better because he’d been hitting good shots, but was making silly mistakes, so he was posting scores that didn’t necessarily reflect how well he was playing.
“I was hitting a lot of quality shots,” he said. “I was hitting like a lot of iron shots close, I was making a lot of birdies. And I know my game is close when I’m making maybe making six or seven birdies in a row but shooting 1 or 2under. I know my game is close then because it’s much easier to limit the mistakes than it is to go out and have to find birdies somehow.
“If you’re making two birdies a round and then a bogey and it’s a little you can’t quite get going, and I think I alluded to that a few weeks ago: It’s much easier to limit the mistakes than it is to go out and try to find these birdies. And I’ve just been able to do that a bit better the last couple of weeks.”
Much of McIlroy’s success on Thursday can be attributed to his fantastic performance on the greens. McIlroy outperformed the field by more than six strokes with his putter (6.3 strokes in putts gained stat). He had one-putts on 14 of his 18 holes, including on the last four, and only needed 22 putts — which ties his career best low putting round on the PGA Tour (also had 22 putts in the third round of the 2013 Deutsche Bank Championship).
McIlroy made a field-leading 5 putts beyond 10 feet and was also the only player in the field not to miss a putt from inside 15 feet. He was a perfect 16 for 16 when putting inside 15 feet in the opening round. Impressive.
But, Rory didn’t even rank Thursday’s putting performance as his best of the year. He said he rolled it better last Sunday at Wentworth.
Last month at the Wells Fargo Championship, McIlroy revealed he had figured out flaws in his putting stroke and his aiming. To help alleviate the problem, he started using the marked line on his ball to line up his putts in the past three tournaments.
“I feel since I started to work with lining the ball up and using that, it’s been much better,” he said. “I’m more confident. I trust when I’m aiming a lot more. Even putts like tricky putts, like the last hole there to save par, you line it up and you know you’ve read the putt right and you can just go ahead and hole the putt. And you’re really happy with that, and I really think I’ve found something with my putting.”
Can McIlroy continue to carry the momentum into Friday — or for that matter, the rest of the weekend? As of now, it appears that nothing’s stopping him, even a bum knee or a silly double-bogey. He’s looking for his first back-to-back wins since the 2012 Deutsche Bank Championship and BMW Championship during the FedExCup Playoffs.
McIlroy played alongside world no. 1 Adam Scott, who is also coming off a win last week at Colonial. Scott also had a double-bogey, but on the front nine — he finished with a solid three-under 69, which puts him in a tie for 12th after the opening round.
Meanwhile, Phil Mickelson only trailed McIlroy by one shot at a point in the back nine before he finished the last three holes bogey-double-double to post a disappointing even-par 72.
“I had a good round going there for a while, just the last three holes were sick,” said Mickelson. “But it was a good day. I was playing well, but the last three holes just threw away a good round.”