Rory McIlroy struggles early at Honda Classic, grinds to shoot 73
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour

Rory McIlroy’s 2015 debut on U.S. soil wasn’t exactly what anyone expected from the no. 1 player in the world. Battling extremely tough conditions and swirling winds at the already difficult PGA National, McIlroy posted a three-over 73 (eight shots off the lead) in the opening round of the Honda Classic.

Believe it or not — it was actually a pretty good score all things considered. McIlroy showed some fight at the end of his round, finishing with back-to-back birdies on the last two holes. But, it still wasn’t up to par, so to speak, for him.

“The conditions were obviously very tricky from the start,” said McIlroy following his round. “You know, from the first hole, it was always going to be a day like that.

“I feel like I salvaged something out of the round the last couple holes, but it was just a day to keep trying, not to give up and know that anything around level, 1-, 2-over par still isn’t out of it.

“So, it wasn’t quite what I wanted, but hopefully tomorrow morning we get calmer conditions and we’re able to give ourselves a few more opportunities and make some birdies.”

McIlroy’s day got off to a rocky start after he pushed a long iron into the leafy shrubs right of the fairway on his opening tee shot. Following a failed search party, Rory determined that his ball was lost and ran back to re-tee. This time, his ball found the right half of the fairway, but he was now lying three and after knocking his fourth into the greenside bunker, he managed to get up-and-down for a double-bogey. Not really the way he wanted to kick off the new year on the PGA Tour.

“Funny, I felt like the wind was more into but once the ball — even Dustin’s ball, once it got out there, the wind just took it to the right,” explained McIlroy when asked about the first hole.  “I was just trying to play a normal sort of straight shot there and I didn’t really try and do much with it.

“Even the second ball I hit, I tried to put some draw on it and the wind still moved it to the right.  It was very strong out there and very difficult to control the ball.”

He gained a shot back after rolling in an easy birdie on the par-5 no. 3, but he gave it right back following another poor drive on the next hole. Then, he hit his tee shot on the par-3 6th into the drink guarding the green and carded his second double of the day in only five holes, putting him at four-over at the time.

Known for his driving prowess, McIlroy struggled off the tee on the front nine and didn’t find his first fairway until the par-4 6th. He showed promise on the 8th hole, pouring in a 22-footer for birdie.

His driving improved on the back nine, hitting six of seven fairways. In general, his ballstriking, which is normally the strength of his game, wasn’t up to his standards, but he managed to keep the damage to somewhat of a minimum by putting rather well. He only needed 27 putts, and following the first round, he’s ranked 27th in strokes gained putting and tied for first in the putts made distance stat.

Conditions also calmed down drastically toward the end of his round.

“The wind started to die down for us the last few holes,” said McIlroy. “And I looked at the forecast for tomorrow morning, and it doesn’t look as bad.  It looks nice, five- to ten-mile-an-hour winds, so hopefully with the conditions, it will be a little easier and enable us to hopefully shoot some better scores.”

As he was walking off the 14th green after dropping another shot to go to five-over, he told his playing partner, Brooks Koepka, “Let’s just make a couple birdies on the way in, try and get something out of it.”

While Koepka — along with Dustin Johnson, who rounded out the threesome — continued to struggle, McIlroy was fortunately able to play the last four holes at two-under, with birdies on the final two. He drained a 32-footer on the par-3 17th, and followed it with a massive drive on the reachable-in-two par-5 18th, which left him with only a 5-iron into the green, where he two-putted with ease.

“Luckily I was sort of able to do that,” he said. “But yeah, it was tough.  When nothing’s going your way and you don’t really have anything to feed off, you don’t see many good shots and guys, we’re all struggling, it was a grind out there.”

I can attest to that — it was rough to watch out there, especially when I don’t think I was alone in expecting to see some better golf out of the marquee trio of young bombers.

Despite the grueling day, McIlroy managed to keep a positive attitude, cracking a joke about posting a better score Thursday than he did in when he last played PGA National in the final round of last year’s tournament, where he shot a four-over 74 to eventually lose in a three-way playoff.

As tough as it was out there today, McIlroy seemed relatively unbothered by his current position at tied for 79th, which puts him one shot outside the cutline at the moment. Given the circumstances, he saw no point in beating himself up.

“I’m coming off a three-week break and tough conditions to come back out in,” said Rory.  “I know that my game is there.  Today wasn’t obviously what I wanted to start with, but if I can get it into red numbers tomorrow, I’m right back in the tournament.”

Meanwhile, Jim Herman, who teed off early Thursday morning, holds the first-round lead after firing an impressive five-under 65. For what it’s worth, when I first arrived at the course at 7:30am and saw the conditions, I didn’t think that score was out there. But, hey, I guess I forgot…THESE GUYS ARE GOOD.