DUBLIN, Ohio – Coming off of two straight missed cuts, Rory McIlroy was four over after three holes Thursday morning at the Memorial Tournament and thinking, “Here we go again.”
Now he’s thinking about being in contention at another big-time tournament.
Thanks to a chip-in eagle on the par-5 fifth hole, his 14th of the day, McIlroy was able to rally for a one-under 71, which left him only two shots behind the early clubhouse leaders.
“I hung in there well, and proud of myself for the way I just fought back,” McIlroy said. “To finish the round under par I thought was a really good effort.”
McIlroy was paired with PGA champion Keegan Bradley (76) and Luke Donald, who fought back from a double bogey on 18, his ninth hole of the day, and also finished with a one-under 71.
“Hopefully that's my loose round out of the way,” Donald said. “I didn't hit the ball well. I was scrambling a lot. But fortunately I putted pretty well, and I'm pretty happy with the score in the end. It wasn't that solid of a round tee to green. I'm going to need to tidy that up.”
McIlroy took the more adventurous route.
His problems started on the tough par-3 12th. His tee shot airmailed the narrow green and landed in the back bunker. His ball stayed on the downslope, leaving him little room to keep his second shot on the green. Sure enough, McIlroy was unable to get any spin on the ball, and it rolled across the green, down a shaved bank and into the water.
“I had no shot,” McIlroy said. “I was trying to land it just out of the bunker in the rough, and let it tumble onto the green. But I had such an awkward stance, it was just hard to execute the shot.”
McIlroy wound up making a quadruple-bogey seven. Fortunately for him, he had plenty of holes to make it up.
“I just tried to stay patient and not even think about the score, just think about what I'm working on in my swing and try and make good swings,” McIlroy said. “That's really all I could do out there.”
After rebounding with birdies on 14 and 15, McIlroy found the water again on his second shot at the par-4 17th, but he was able to save bogey and made the turn at three over par.
But he didn’t stay in the black for long.
McIlroy’s comeback started with a birdie on the short par-4 third hole. He followed that with an aggressive second shot on the par-5 fifth hole from the left rough, which left him right in front of the green. McIlroy said he felt comfortable with that shot since he had the same one in Wednesday’s pro-am. Then he hit his best shot of the day, a chip-in for eagle.
“Just landed sort of halfway between the fringe and the hole, and I got a really good connection on it and it checked up for me and went in,” McIlroy said.
The eagle got McIlroy back to even par, and right back into the tournament.
“That was a goal that I set myself after nine holes,” McIlroy said. “I said, if I can get it back to even par here, that would be a good score, and to finish one better, then that is a bonus.”
Donald was his usual, steady self for most of his opening nine, but he pulled his drive on 18 into the creek that runs along the left side. He finished with a double to make the turn at one over par.
Like McIlroy, Donald birdied No. 3 to get back to even par. He nearly holed his third shot from a greenside bunker on the par-5 seventh, but he tapped in for birdie and hung on for a 71.
“This course is tricky,” Donald said. “There's some tougher pins out there today, I thought, and overall I'll take one under and try and play better the next three days.”
Donald (27 putts) and McIlroy (25 putts) saved their rounds with some clutch putting, but the top two players in the world both headed to the driving range after their rounds to get their swings in order. McIlroy has his coach, Michael Bannon, with him this week as he prepares to defend his U.S. Open title in two weeks.
“I feel like it's getting better and better every day, but it still is a work in progress,” McIlroy said on the work he’s doing with his coach. “I'm still going to have to hit a lot of balls between now and the U.S. Open to feel like I'm really ready for it.”