Rory McIlroy’s injury, Scottie Scheffler’s triple lead to packed leaderboard at East Lake
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Written by Sean Martin @PGATOURSMartin
ATLANTA – Rory McIlroy was the center of attention as he warmed up for Thursday’s opening round at the TOUR Championship, but not for the usual reason. One of the game’s most powerful players was sapped of his swing speed as he hit balls gingerly on East Lake’s practice tee.
These were the first balls McIlroy had hit since he left the BMW Championship on Sunday, his normal routine interrupted by a back spasm that struck Tuesday morning while McIlroy was in his at-home gym.
McIlroy re-aggravated the injury while exercising Wednesday at East Lake. Despite a heat index over 100 degrees on Thursday and on-course treatment, the spasm got progressively tighter as his opening round progressed. But birdies at Nos. 13, 15 and 16 put McIlroy under par before his bogey at East Lake’s par-5 18th.
With limited movement in his torso, he had to rely on his arms to generate power. He was still able to rank 10th in Driving Distance (315.9 yards) while hitting half his fairways, but it was the shots where his club had to make contact with the ground that gave him the most trouble.
McIlroy hit just 11 greens and struggled with his short game, ranking 28th and 29th in the 30-man field in Strokes Gained: Approach-the-Green and Strokes Gained: Around-the-Green, respectively. Chip shots on the second and 11th holes failed to reach the putting surface.
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“I hung in there and I just felt like if I could get through today, it's better than it was yesterday, hopefully tomorrow's better than it was today, and just sort of try to keep progressing,” McIlroy said. “The fact that I'm only going to be -- whatever it's going to be (three) off the lead, I'm over the moon about.”
McIlroy is still in contention for the ultimate prize because the players who began the day atop the FedExCup Starting Strokes leaderboard could not take advantage of their baked-in advantage.
FedExCup leader Scottie Scheffler started Thursday at 10 under par, two shots ahead of Viktor Hovland. With a triple-bogey at the island 15th, Scheffler shot a 1-over 71 that dropped him from two shots ahead to one behind a trio of leaders: Collin Morikawa, Keegan Bradley and Hovland, who shot a bogey-free 68.
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On a day when the scoring average was nearly two strokes under par, the final three groups, comprised of the top six in the FedExCup standings, combined to shoot even par. Only two of those players broke par and none of them shot lower than Hovland’s 68.
The TOUR Championship’s unique format requires players to sit on a lead for four days. Scheffler was the tournament’s leader as soon as he left the BMW Championship on Sunday and Hovland knew he would start the first round in second place.
“You feel like you're kind of getting chased from the get-go,” said Hovland, who won the BMW with a final-round 61.
With Thursday’s tee times arranged by FedExCup Starting Strokes, the leaders teed off late Thursday. That allowed their pursuers to tee off earlier, when conditions are often a bit more forgiving, and with less pressure. The result is a condensed leaderboard entering Friday that leaves the FedExCup in flux.
Morikawa shot 61 on Thursday to tie the lead, while Bradley shot 63. That score was matched by Adam Schenk, who’s making his TOUR Championship debut. He shares fifth place with Russell Henley, who shot 65.
McIlroy and Rahm, who played together in Thursday’s second-to-last group, are tied for seventh with Matt Fitzpatrick.
Scheffler made birdie on three of his first six holes Thursday and built a five-shot advantage. But his triple at 15 – where he hit his tee shot in the water and three-putted – along with three bogeys led to his second consecutive over-par round at East Lake. He shot 73 in the final round of last season to lose a six-shot lead to McIlroy, who won his record third FedExCup that day.
Scheffler, who returned this week to the same Scotty Cameron that he’s used in all six of his TOUR wins, was just 1 for 4 on putts from 4-8 feet on Thursday and last in the field in Strokes Gained: Putting.
Rahm, who’s won a TOUR-high four times this season, bogeyed Nos. 13-15 before making birdie on the final two holes to shoot 69.
“It is a bit weird starting a tournament with the lead,” said Scheffler, the first player to arrive at East Lake as the FedExCup leader in consecutive years. “It's a little bit of a blessing to have a pretty bad day and still be in the tournament.”
Sean Martin is a senior editor for the PGA TOUR. He is a 2004 graduate of Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. Attending a small school gave him a heart for the underdog, which is why he enjoys telling stories of golf's lesser-known players. Follow Sean Martin on Twitter.