x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

McIlroy's road to redemption starts with overnight lead at US Open

The 80 he shot in the final round of the Masters was a distant memory for the Northern Irishman.

Rory McIlroy chips out of the bunker at the 14th yesterday.
Rory McIlroy chips out of the bunker at the 14th yesterday.

BETHESDA // After Rory McIlroy's letdown at the Masters came a visit with the Bear.

Put pressure on yourself early, Jack Nicklaus told him. Avoid mistakes, too.

Great advice from a man who knows his majors - and executed to perfection in McIlroy's first major round since he blew his four-shot lead on the last day at Augusta.

He didn't make a bogey Thursday on the way to a 6-under-par 65 at the US Open. He took a three-shot lead over YE Yang and Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, the biggest first-day cushion at the Open since 1976.

"He emphasized so much to me about not making mistakes," McIlroy said, referring to what he's learned from Nicklaus during visits before and after the Masters collapse. "That was his big thing. He said people lost a lot more majors and gave them to him than he actually won. That's how he felt. It was a good piece of advice to have."

On a day of sublime shotmaking, McIlroy hit 17 greens in regulation, needed only 29 putts and walked away with the first-round lead at a major for the third time in a year.

While most of the rest of the field was having trouble with mega-sized Congressional on a relatively tame day, McIlroy took it for what it was: a long-but-soft golf course with navigable rough and conditions suited for scoring. He scored 65 or better at a major for the third time since the first round of last year's British, when he tied the major scoring record with a 63.

"It doesn't feel like a typical US Open, for some reason," McIlroy said. "The golf course is going to get harder and it's going to get firmer and it's going to get trickier, but I still feel that it's very playable and fair. If you don't hit a fairway, you've still got a chance to hit it on the green and give yourself a chance for birdie."

McIlroy played the bulk of his round in breezy conditions that weren't present in the morning, when Yang was shooting his 68. Rain that greeted the players early in the morning started falling again as McIlroy was heading to the ninth green - his last hole of the day - but there was no dampening this effort.

Still, he knows the difference between a good start and a good finish.

He was up by four at Augusta heading into Sunday, but the lead and his chances were gone by the time he got out of Amen Corner. He shot 80. Still, he was the picture of poise and class after that dreadful day. He blamed nobody but himself, was patient in explaining the failure, called it a learning experience.

He said Nicklaus talked to him about handling the pressure that comes with big expectations - expectations that weren't diminished by the Masters collapse.

"He just sort of said to me, `There's going to be a lot of pressure on you, but you've got to put a lot of pressure on yourself early,' " McIlroy said. "That's what he always did. He always put a lot of pressure on himself to do well."

Sergio Garcia, British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen, American Ryan Palmer, Kyung-tae Kim, Scott Hend and Alexandre Rocha were tied for fourth at 2 under. Defending champion Graeme McDowell was part of a group of 11 at 1 under.

Yes, there's plenty of golf left, but nobody will start Friday's second round in as good a spot as McIlroy.

"Well, there's definitely no relief in it," he said. "It's always nice to shoot a good first round at any tournament, let alone a major. But no relief. I know I'm playing well. I know this golf course."

McIlroy played in the featured afternoon threesome along with Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, but it wasn't a fair fight. In fact, it hardly seemed like they were playing the same course.

Johnson hit two balls in the water and made triple-bogey on his second hole on the way to a 75.

Mickelson, on his 41st birthday, opened the day by banging his tee shot on the par-3 10th into the water en route to double bogey. He spent the rest of the round hitting driver out of the rough, crisscrossing cart paths, searching for his ball in the weeds and looking for miracle up-and-downs from greenside, among other things.

"This actually turned out to be a great day," Mickelson said, "because I played horrific."

The morning's featured threesome fared no better.

No. 1 Luke Donald (74), No. 2 Lee Westwood (75) and No. 3 Martin Kaymer (74) combined for 17 bogeys and one double.

"It was," Donald said, "kind of a solemn group, I guess."

McIlroy's closest competition were Yang and Schwartzel, who turned a ho-hum round into something much better with four birdies over the span of five holes on his second nine. It included a birdie off a putt from outside of 50 feet on No. 3.

"And all of a sudden, things got going," Schwartzel said. "I kept giving myself chances and stayed patient and got my little run."

Yang's 2009 win at the PGA Championship might be better remembered as the one that Tiger Woods lost.

When Yang won at Hazeltine that year, it marked the first time Woods failed to close after taking a lead into the last day of a major. Yang hasn't contended at a Grand Slam tournament since, but said Congressional fits his game better than most courses.

"I've been playing more conservatively," Yang said. "I'm trying to make more pars, less bogeys and I was lucky to make a few birdies. Overall, the course and my approach has worked to my advantage."

But nobody could out-do McIlroy.

"I don't know if it says that I've just got a very short memory or, I don't know," he said. "I took the experience from Augusta, and I learned a lot from it. But I feel like these good starts in the majors are very much down to how I prepare for them."

sports@thenational.ae