Triple, eagle highlight Rory McIlroy’s topsy-turvy start to TOUR Championship
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Written by Sean Martin @PGATOURSMartin
Rory McIlroy holes out from 35-yards for eagle at TOUR Championship
ATLANTA – As the rain doused East Lake on Thursday during a brief shower, Rory McIlroy tried to squeeze his opening tee shot into the first fairway. It found the street instead, as McIlroy’s body stopped turning and his hands flipped over, resulting in the dreaded double-cross.
McIlroy described it as “the worst start possible.” It’s especially costly this week, with the TOUR Championship’s unique FedExCup Starting Strokes format. Already six behind before he teed off, McIlroy, No. 7 in the FedExCup standings, was now hitting three and still on the first tee. He hit his second tee shot into a fairway bunker and made a triple-bogey. A bogey on the next hole dropped him 10 shots behind FedExCup leader Scottie Scheffler.
But, with nothing left to lose, McIlroy attacked a vulnerable East Lake layout that had been softened by the same rain that fell as he started his round. He made eight birdies – the most of anyone Thursday – to shoot a topsy-turvy 67 that featured just four pars, the fewest in any round of his lengthy TOUR career.
“There's a lesson in there somewhere,” he said, “(that) even when you're not sure about what you're trying to do, sort of going full send for me is the best way forward.”
McIlroy didn’t make his first par until the seventh hole, sandwiching a bogey on the fourth hole between birdies on Nos. 3 and 5. Then he eagled the par-5 sixth by holing a 35-yard pitch shot from the rough. Another birdie on the eighth hole got him to even par for the day but he bogeyed No. 9 to make the turn in 1-over 36. He added five birdies and a bogey on the back nine to shoot 31. Four of those back-nine birdies came on the final five holes.
Even after that strong finish, he trails Scheffler by eight shots. Scheffler, who started the week at 10 under and two ahead of second-ranked Patrick Cantlay, extended his lead by making birdie on the final three holes Thursday and shooting a 65 that was bested by only two players (Matt Fitzpatrick and Joaquin Niemann each shot 64).
“It depends what Scottie does,” McIlroy said about his chances of catching Scheffler by Sunday. “I can go out and shoot a really good score tomorrow, but if Scottie is (eight) ahead of me, then it makes things really difficult. But if I go out and shoot a good score tomorrow and Scottie has a lackluster day, then he brings a lot of guys in it, and over 36 holes anything can happen.
“I think tomorrow is a pretty pivotal day for the rest of the field just to try to get a little closer to where Scottie is.”
McIlroy arrived at East Lake with history in his sights, as he has can become the first player to win three FedExCups. Only he and Tiger Woods have won the title twice. McIlroy won in 2016 and 2019, and his consistency this season has reminded him of his second FedExCup-winning season. He won twice in 2021-22 (THE CJ CUP @ SUMMIT, RBC Canadian Open), had top-10s in all four majors and finished outside the top 25 just three times in 15 starts.
“I'm back to playing the golf that I'm used to playing and the golf that I know that I can play,” McIlroy said two weeks earlier at the first event of the FedExCup Playoffs, the FedEx St. Jude Championship. “This year feels very similar to the way I played in 2019. It's a carbon copy in terms of the consistency and the numbers and the strokes gained numbers, but my finishes in the majors have been better and that's been a real positive looking ahead into next year and the future.”
McIlroy started the 2019 TOUR Championship, the first to use the Starting Strokes format, five shots off the lead. His 72-hole score of 267 was the lowest of the week by three shots and gave him a four-shot win over Xander Schauffele. McIlroy’s deficit was only one shot larger at the start of this week but, of course, it quickly grew.
Still, he said he drew inspiration from Tom Kim’s recent performance at the Wyndham Championship. Kim is the last player to shoot under par after starting his round with a triple or worse, shooting an opening 67 at Sedgefield Country Club after making a quadruple-bogey on the first hole. He went on to win the tournament by five shots, becoming the first player on record (since the TOUR started keeping hole-by-hole records in 1983) to win a TOUR event after starting with a quad or worse.
McIlroy has his own history of comebacks. He won a FedExCup Playoffs event, the 2016 Deutsche Bank Championship, after playing the first three holes in 4 over (he had to hole a 14-footer just to make triple on his third hole). McIlroy went on to win his first FedExCup two events later. Could another comeback be in the works? It’s possible after the way he recovered from his awful start.
“I'm just really proud of how I fought back today,” he said.
Sean Martin manages PGATOUR.COM’s staff of writers as the Lead, Editorial. He covered all levels of competitive golf at Golfweek Magazine for seven years, including tournaments on four continents, before coming to the PGA TOUR in 2013. Follow Sean Martin on Twitter.