Rory McIlroy’s new chapter starts with a 67 at Firestone
World number four looked impressive in his first round without JP Fitzgerald on the bag
Rory McIlroy has best friend Harry Diamond on the bag at the WGC Bridgestone Invitational. Photo: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
Life after JP dawned brightly for Rory McIlroy in Akron as he carded an impressive round of 67 – three under par – at the WGC Bridgestone Invitational to sit two shots off the lead at the end of the first day.
That lead is held by Belgium’s Thomas Pieters who went around the fearsome par 70 in 65 strokes, carding no worse than a four on his way to setting a first round total of five under par.
With best friend Harry Diamond on the bag at Firestone, McIlroy dazzled at times but a three-putt bogey on the final hole is sure to leave a sour taste. Alongside him, Open champion Jordan Spieth also signed for a 67 thanks to another spectacular day on the greens while Jason Day could only manage a 71 for one over par.
World number four McIlroy came into the event off the back of a top five finish at the British Open and feeling very much like he’d turned a corner. However, that was cast into doubt once again when the news emerged on Monday that he had split with his caddie of nine years, JP Fitzgerald, in order to, in McIlroy’s words “preserve their friendship.”
The 28-year-old has said that he wants to be more independent on the course and pointed to that after his opening round in Ohio, saying: “I’m taking a little bit more responsibility on myself and there were a couple of times where I probably should have hit another club, but that’s on me, not anyone else.
“I’d much rather be frustrated at my own decision than someone else’s. It’s great to have my best mate on the bag and we’re just having a good time.”
Much of that frustration over the last while has been on the greens but Birkdale seemed to put paid to that as well as he finished the week fourth in the putting statistics and continued the good form on the lightning quick Firestone surfaces.
Despite that three-putt on the last McIlroy took just 27 putts in an opening round where he looked extremely confident on and around the greens.
The par saves were as important as the birdies for momentum and he made two very impressive up-and-downs to avoid dropping shots at the fourth and fifth, his 13th and 14th after starting at the 10th.
Playing in the event for the first time since he lifted the trophy in 2014 – an injury in 2015 and last year’s clash with the French Open meant he missed the last two instalments – McIlroy picked up a birdie at his second but gave it back at the 13th in what was a slow enough start.
Four pars in a row from there left the galleries wondering when the spark would ignite, but it soon did so – albeit thanks to a bit of luck.
After a monstrous drive at the 18th – he missed just four fairways all day – McIlroy faced nothing more than a wedge into the small green. However, as he would say himself afterwards, it’s the wedge game that needs work. On this occasion he got away with it as a slightly heavy strike meant his ball landed short of the pin but released out to five feet from where he rolled in the birdie putt. The fuse had been lit.
From there it was vintage McIlroy with birdies following at the par five second – thanks to a good up-and-down from the greenside bunker – the par four third and the par four sixth.
However, there was to be a fly in the ointment, again coming in the wedge department.
With just 121 yards to the pin on his final hole after another big drive, he flew his approach way over the flag to the back of the green. Three putts later it was a bogey five to finish and a potential 65 turned into a 67.
Perhaps that was the best indicator that his game is not quite at its all-conquering best just yet, but it is very close.
“The putter feels really good,” he said afterwards.
“It felt good at the Open and I’ve been working hard on it, trying to blend the technical stuff with a little bit of feel as well and I feel like it’s coming together.
“I didn’t feel like I had my best stuff at Birkdale but I was able to finish decent. I really feel like I tuned a corner at Birkdale and it’s nice to open with a good round here.”
Collated first round scores in the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, Firestone CC (South), Akron, Ohio, United States of America (Gbr & Irl unless stated, par 70):
65 Thomas Pieters (Bel)
66 Russell Knox
67 Rory McIlroy, Ross Fisher, Jon Rahm (Spa), Bubba Watson (USA), Kevin Kisner (USA), Jordan Spieth (USA)
68 Dustin Johnson (USA), Charley Hoffman (USA), Adam Scott (Aus), Andres Romero (Arg), Jimmy Walker (USA), Adam Hadwin (Can)
69 Hideki Matsuyama (Jap), J.B. Holmes (USA), Zach Johnson (USA), Alex Noren (Swe), Kyle Stanley (USA), Paul Lawrie, Jhonattan Vegas (Ven)
70 Charl Schwartzel (Rsa), Harold Varner III (USA), Xander Schauffele (USA), Hudson Swafford (USA), Brian Harman (USA), Scott Hend (Aus), Bill Haas (USA), Tommy Fleetwood, Paul Casey, Bernd Wiesberger (Aut), Rickie Fowler (USA)
71 Jason Day (Aus), Francesco Molinari (Ita), Shaun Norris (Rsa), Branden Grace (Rsa), Matt Kuchar (USA), Thongchai Jaidee (Th), Renato Paratore (Ita), Phil Mickelson (USA), Daniel Berger (USA), Brooks Koepka (USA)
72 Pat Perez (USA), Kevin Chappell (USA), Emiliano Grillo (Arg), Andy Sullivan, Justin Rose, Wesley Bryan (USA), Sergio Garcia (Spa), Tyrrell Hatton, Henrik Stenson (Swe), Lee Westwood
73 Satoshi Kodaira (Jap), Si Woo Kim (Kor), Brendan Steele (USA), Justin Thomas (USA), Marc Leishman (Aus), Thorbjorn Olesen (Dnk), Rod Pampling (Aus), Ryan Moore (USA), Matthew Fitzpatrick
74 Jeunghun Wang (Kor), Fabrizio Zanotti (Par), Gary Woodland (USA), Mackenzie Hughes (Can), Louis Oosthuizen (Rsa), Sam Brazel (Aus), Hideto Tanihara (Jap)
75 Chris Wood, Russell Henley (USA), Bryson DeChambeau (USA), Patrick Reed (USA)
76 Jason Dufner (USA), Billy Horschel (USA), Danny Willett, Rafael Cabrera-Bello (Spa)