Rory McIlroy cards a flawless 65 in opening round at Firestone

Tiger Woods was also placed nicely after a solid 66 at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational

Rory McIlroy produced a superb opening five under par round of 65 to get his challenge for the World Golf Championship (WGC) Bridgestone Invitational over the Firestone course, a tournament he won in 2014, off to an excellent start.

His card contained five birdies and no dropped shots to leave him three shots behind first round leader Ian Poulter (62) and two adrift of Kyle Stanley and Rickie Fowler (both 63s). But the majority of those fans who came to see the early starters, thronged the fairways around one particular two-ball, hoping to catch a glimpse of Tiger Woods, who has won this tournament a staggering eight times in 14 appearances.

He didn’t disappoint with the exception of his last hole, the ninth, where a pulled tee shot led to his only concession to par and took a tiny bit of the gloss from the five birdies in a four under, 66. There was one moment of vintage Woods, his escape from trees and lush rough at the 18th and then a wonderfully judged, curling 30-foot putt that disappeared for a birdie.

Poulter, who has never finished better than 13th in 13 appearances at this tournament, grabbed the first round lead with a stunning round that included eight birdies and no dropped shots. The Englishman took just 30 shots to the turn, having started at the 10th, stockpiling five birdies and no dropped shots before picking up three more shots on his way in to reduce to size what is a big golf course at 7,400 yard course with a par of 70.

He said: “I had a lot of fun. If you shoot 62, especially on this course, you’ve obviously done a lot of good things. I put it in play a lot, hit a lot of good second shots and have myself loads of chances.

“It was really nice to get one on this golf course. I posted my stats this morning and I was really frustrated when I looked at it as a whole.

“Tied 13th was as good as I’ve done and that’s simply not good enough so it was good motivation to look at that this morning, come out and try to be aggressive and post a number.

“I didn’t know the course record was nine under and it would have been nice to get one or two more (birdies), but eight under for me is a great score on this course. There’s a long way to go but when I’m playing as well as I’m playing it’s great to play golf.”

McIlroy too was reasonably enthused by his performance once he’d recalibrated some errant driving that occasionally pockmarked his opening nine holes. He explained: “Yeah it was good. We couldn’t have got it easier this morning, no wind and very soft. It was a day you needed to take advantage of the conditions and I felt I did that pretty well.”

He’s been working hard on his wedge play to try and a feel for a slight draw when required. “It’s getting there; it’s okay. I’m still working through things. It feels very comfortable on the range but obviously out on the golf course it will take a little bit of time. I hit enough good shots and held a few putts.

“There are a few tee shots out there that if you can carry it over 300-yards it’s a big advantage on the rest of the field. I have done well here. I just feel that this week is an ideal time to work on a few things. You get four rounds at it and you have a free run at trying things out. I felt like I brought some of the stuff from the range to the golf course and just have to continue to work on it as the week goes on.”

Paul Dunne is the only other Irishman in the exclusive field having gained an exemption thanks to his victory at the British Masters last year and he struggled on what was an easy scoring day, eventually winding up with a round of 71 for one over par.

The Greystones man underwent surgery last week to drain a cyst on his hand and was perhaps feeling the effects as he dropped two shots in his last six holes to go from one under back to one over alongside US Masters champion Patrick Reed who signed for a round of 66.

Hideki Matsuyama, the defending champion and playing alongside McIlroy, holed from the fairway at the 16th for eagle to kick-start a round that saw him eventually sign for a 67. On a day of low scoring, Spain's Jon Rahm carded a 64, while Jason Day and Justin Thomas were among the players to shoot 65.

Starting on the 10th McIlroy pulled his first couple of tee shots into the left rough but having two-putted for par on his opening hole, he dropped a 13-foot birdie putt on the 11th to move to one under. He’d yet to hit a fairway and that sequence continued on the 14th catching the right rough with his drive but from 142 yards he found the putting surface and two-putted for par.

His tee shot on the 227-yard, par three 15th finished in the rough through the back left of the green; not for the first time he managed to get up and down.

The par five 16th is a monster at 667 yards and McIlroy played it in largely exemplary fashion up until a missed five footer for birdie that should have taken him to two under. He did pick up a second shot on the 18th, hitting a second fairway in succession and converting from nine feet.

McIlroy striped another drive on the par five, second hole, a precursor to a third birdie of the round after getting up and down from the front fringe. Having dispensed with the slightly errant tee shots of his first nine and playing from fairways the Northern Ireland golfer was at his imperious best, grabbing a second consecutive birdie at the third and then moving to five under with another at the par three, fifth.

It didn’t matter one iota that he completed his tee shot one-handed as the ball came to rest four feet from the hole. McIlroy continued to give himself birdie chances on the way in to no avail but he demonstrated his mettle on the ninth, his 18th hole, when a pushed tee shot caught the rough, his second ran into some lush grass to the right of the green but an exquisite chip to two feet, allowed him to rescue a par and retain an unblemished card.

Collated first round scores in the WGC Bridgestone Invitational (USA unless stated, par 70):

62 Ian Poulter (Eng)
63 Kyle Stanley, Rickie Fowler
64 Jon Rahm (Spa), Patrick Cantlay, Si Woo Kim (Kor)
65 Kevin Na, Jason Day (Aus), Luke List, Rory McIlroy (NIrl), Justin Thomas, Marc Leishman (Aus), Anirban Lahiri (Ind)
66 Brooks Koepka, Phil Mickelson, Haotong Li (Chn), Tiger Woods, Tommy Fleetwood (Eng), Patrick Reed, Matthew Fitzpatrick (Eng)
67 Daniel Berger, Hideki Matsuyama (Jpn), Ross Fisher (Eng), Aaron Wise, Gary Woodland, Russell Knox (Sco)
68 Pat Perez, Genzo Tokimatsu (Jpn), Adam Scott (Aus), Byeong-Hun An (Kor), Jaco Ahlers (Rsa), Louis Oosthuizen (Rsa), Matt Kuchar, Tony Finau, Tyrrell Hatton (Eng), Paul Casey (Eng), Patton Kizzire, Rafael Cabrera-Bello (Spa)
69 Dustin Johnson, Charley Hoffman, Zach Johnson, Xander Schauffele, Alexander Bjork (Swe), Wade Ormsby (Aus), Webb Simpson
70 Francesco Molinari (Ita), Alex Noren (Swe), Andrew Landry, Cameron Smith (Aus), Kiradech Aphibarnrat (Tha), Ted Potter, Jr., Sergio Garcia (Spa), Jhonattan Vegas (Ven), Henrik Stenson (Swe)
71 Charl Schwartzel (Rsa), Brandon Stone (Rsa), Bubba Watson, Brian Harman, Kevin Chappell, Thorbjorn Olesen (Den), Paul Dunne (Irl), Jordan Spieth
72 Emiliano Grillo (Arg), Shubhankar Sharma (Ind)
73 Satoshi Kodaira (Jpn), Brendan Steele, Austin Cook, Kodai Ichihara (Jpn), Branden Grace (Rsa)
74 Kevin Kisner
75 Bryson DeChambeau

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