New dad Rory McIlroy brilliantly celebrated his return to competition with a lowest round in nearly three months posting a sizzling opening six-under par 64 in the double defence of his Tour Championship and FedEx Cup crown in Atlanta.
McIlroy’s effort that included a closing hat-trick of birdies handed him the early East Lake clubhouse lead in the mega bucks 2019/20 PGA Tour season-ender featuring just 30 players.
At the end of the opening day Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm, with the FedEx Cup points adjustment, shared the lead at 13-under par.
Johnson had begun at 10-under and Rahm at eight under though on the scorecard ‘DJ’ shot a three-under par 67 and Rahm a 65.
The actual lowest score of the day, 64, was posted by both McIlroy and Texas-based Mexican Abraham Ancer.
‘Though in the most bizarre of bizarre leaderboards, McIlroy is lying fourth after teeing-up at three-under and seven adrift of Johnson, the Irishman is now within four shots of Johnson at an overall nine-under par.
McIlroy could not have asked for a better start just four days after he and wife Erica welcomed the arrival of daughter, Poppy Kennedy.
After the joy of an opening hole birdie, McIlroy was clearly delighted to pick-up seven other birdies in his round.
“Golf was the furthest thing from my mind the first few days this week and then once we got home on Wednesday and everything was good and mom and baby were healthy, that sort of took a load off my mind, and that meant I could come here and somewhat focus on what I’m supposed to do,” said McIlroy.
“It was just nice to get home, as I said, have that reassurance that everything is okay, and then if anything, what’s happened the last few days, it’s nice to get out on the course for four or five hours and just do this.
“Obviously I have a lot of good memories here at East Lake, and nice to have another really good round.
“It was also a little surprising to produce such a good first round. You know, it just shows you golf is such a mental game, and if you come in with low expectations, that’s always how I’ve played well.
“Whether I don’t feel like my game is in a good place or I’m not the favourite coming into a tournament, all that stuff, I feel like that’s when I usually play my best and I can play with a bit of freedom, and that’s what I did today.”
As pointed out, McIlroy began on a positive note in holing a six-footer for birdie ‘3’ on the first hole and while he then dropped a first of only two bogeys in his round at the third hole, the four-time Major winner drained a six-footer for birdie at the fourth and an eight-footer at the sixth before dropping a shot at eight to make the turn at one-under on the scorecard and four-under in the greater FedEx Cup picture.
McIlroy’s inward half saw him hole a curling left-to-right 20-footer for birdie at the par-3 11th hole while he moved to three-under for his round, this time sinking an 18-footer for a birdie ‘3’ at the 13th.
He then birdied the closing three holes with respective putts of 11-feet, 12-feet and then up-and-down from a greenside bunker at the last to sink a five-footer.
It is McIlroy’s lowest round in seven events, since an opening 63 in June’s Travelers Championship.
However, being the PGA Tour’s newest dad certainly didn’t help in terms of fairways hit and putts holed as it was much the same as the McIlroy that has struggled on the greens since the June 11th lifting on the Tour’s lockdown.
McIlroy managed to hit just five of 14 fairways and posted 27 putts.
“My iron play was good today and for the most part I hit a lot of good iron shots, good wedge shots again,” McIlroy added.
“That’s been something in my game that’s been pretty good over the last few weeks, even though the results haven’t been there.
“I just need to get the ball in the fairway more. If I can get the ball in the fairway, I can take advantage of how my iron play is. I love these greens. I’ve always putted these green well and I putted them well again today. Just a few more balls in the fairway and hopefully I’ll be right there.”
He was also asked after his round if his mind wandered during the four hours or so on the East Lake course to the happiness of the birth of his first child.
“Yeah, a little bit. Yeah, it’s like every three hours she’s supposed to be fed, so I’m like, okay, there’s a feeding coming up,” he said smiling.
“But like it’s natural. It’s natural that in between shots you think about other things, and obviously my mind has been very much on what’s going on at home. But it is nice to have this little four or five hours to myself to concentrate on my game and sort of get into this stuff.
“I played well today. I played really well. I played as good as I have in a long time, and that was very encouraging.”
McIlroy had delayed his arrival to the east Atlanta course to the eve of the mega bucks 2019/20 season-ending due to the Monday birth of he and wife, Erica’s first child.
And everywhere McIlroy turned at the home of legendary Bobby Jones there were congratulations from fellow players, caddies, officials and the media.
Even in these continuing times of ‘social distancing’, nil handshakes or knuckles, and certainly no hugs or back-slapping, McIlroy could have easily handed out a store full of cigars.
“Everyone I’ve bumped into since arriving here at East Lake has been amazing,” he said.
“I’m just so grateful for everyone’s support and the best wishes for Erica, myself and Poppy.
“I’ve never been a person to take anything for granted including both my life on and off the golf course life but for so many people who’ve come up to me to say how happy they are for Erica and myself is really touching.”