DUBLIN, Ohio (AP) – Rory McIlroy went from the bunker to the water, walked across the pond to the drop area, then hit into another bunker. When he was done making a mess of the 12th hole at Muirfield Village, he had a quadruple-bogey 7 on his card and wondered if this was going to be another short week.
Thanks to the next 15 holes he played Thursday at the Memorial, he felt he was headed in the right direction.
McIlroy and Tiger Woods both overcame one bad hole to break par in the opening round on a tough, firm course that was just the way tournament founder Jack Nicklaus likes it.
Woods chopped his way to a double bogey on No. 18 in the middle of his round, but he birdied three of the par 5s and was solid for most of the sunny, pleasant day for a 2-under 70. McIlroy one-putted nine greens and chipped in for eagle on the par-5 fifth. A birdie on his last hole gave him a 71.
“It wasn't the start I wanted to get off to, being 4 over through three holes, especially after the last few weeks,'' McIlroy said. “I was just like, `Here we go again.' But I hung in there well, and proud of myself for the way I just fought back. To finish the round under par, I thought was a really good effort.''
The big winner among early starters was Muirfield Village. Under dry conditions, and with a few perilous pins, players were protecting par when they got the least bit out of position. But during the afternoon wave, players had an easier time as Scott Stallings showed, finishing with a 66 and a one-shot lead over Spencer Levin and Erik Compton.
Woods and McIlroy both have hit a bad patch coming into the Memorial. Woods tied for 40th at the Masters and The Players Championship, and in between missed the cut at Quail Hollow for the worst three-tournament stretch of his PGA Tour career. McIlroy is coming off missed cuts at The Players and the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, which cost him the No. 1 ranking.
McIlroy conceded that he had not prepared properly for Wentworth, and vowed to get his game on track. He worked throughout the weekend on the range and in the gym, spent six hours practicing when he arrived at Muirfield, and then watched it all fall apart early in his round.
His long approach into the par-5 11th had too much movement to the left and tumbled into the water, and the 23-year-old from Northern Ireland had to scramble for par. And then came the par-3 12th, a hole that gave up only three birdies in the morning.
McIlroy caught a horrible lie in the back, his ball on a downward slope that made it difficult to stop on a green running away from him. It raced across the green, down the bank and into the water. Going to the drop area – the forward tee for members – he went into the front bunker, and then blasted out to 10 feet and took two putts for his 7.
“I had such an awkward stance, it was just hard to execute the shot,'' McIlroy said of the first bunker shot. “I flew it maybe a few yards too far and it went in the water on the other side.''
How he managed to stay patient might have been his finest feat of the day, and his putter certainly saved him. McIlroy twice made 8-foot par putts, avoid a three-putt on the 18th with a 6-foot par putt and sprinkled in enough birdies to stay in the game.
The turning point came at the par-5 fifth, when he hooked his tee shot for the gallery. He cursed through clenched teeth, and holding his driver behind him, whacked himself in the back with the grip a couple of times. From the left rough, he played an aggressive fairway metal, low and hot and dead straight, avoiding the water down the left side of the fairway. The ball came up about 15 yards short of the green, and he pitched in for eagle.
“I see enough good shots out there to give me encouragement,'' McIlroy said, one eye toward his title defense in the U.S. Open in two weeks. “There's still a few that I don't like, but as long as the good ones are in there, then you see the positives.''
He played with Luke Donald, who won at Wentworth to reclaim No. 1 in a back-and-forth battle with McIlroy. Donald also was saved by his putter in a scrappy round. He hit into the water off the tee at the 18th for double bogey, but made three tough pars from the bunkers on the 16th, 17th and first holes. Two of the par putts were from 10 feet, the other from 18 feet.
“Hopefully, that's my loose round out of the way,'' Donald said after a 71.
Woods has been struggling on the par 5s, though that wasn't a problem. The only one where he didn't make birdie came at the 11th, when he drilled a beautiful second shot that went just over the back of the green. He chipped weakly to about 8 feet and missed the putt.
The only big miscue for the four-time Memorial champion was on the 18th, when he blocked a 5-wood off the tee into the bunker, hooked that into a nasty patch of rough to the left of the green, came up short and into a bunker and couldn't get up-and-down.
“I didn't do anything great and I didn't do anything poorly,'' Woods said. “I was just very consistent. And I think with the golf course being the way it's set up, you just have to be that way. … Over the next three days, hopefully I can play as well as I did today.''