All eyes were on Rory McIlroy as the world number hit the range for Thursday’s opening round at the Tour Championship, but not for the usual reason. Clearly pained, the powerful Irishman looked to be a doubt to even make it to the first tee as he winced after gingerly hitting every shot on East Lake’s practice tee.
Having not played his usual pre-tournament practice rounds, these were the first balls McIlroy had hit since last Sunday’s BMW Championship, after a back spasm suffered while working out at home had left the man seeking a fourth FedExCup title that stricken.
McIlroy re-aggravated the injury while at East Lake on Wednesday, and despite the welcome heat and on-course treatment, he continued to struggle throughout the round but somehow managed to return a level-par score. Two-over for his opening nine, a birdie at the 10th was his first of the day, and though he’d bogey the next, birdies at Nos. 13, 15 and 16 somehow got the Holywood man into red figures for the before a frustrating bogey at the last dropped him back to level for the day.
It’s testament to McIlroy’s power that even with a limited swing, he still ranked 10th in Driving Distance, but it was on approach play and around the greens that the injury wreaked most havoc and he ended the day ranked in the bottom three in both Strokes Gained: Approach-the-Green and Strokes Gained: Around-the-Green.
“So I got here really early this morning, like 7:45, so like six hours before my tee time, did cold tub, did everything,” McIlroy said after his round. “I hit 20 wedges by 10 a.m. which is the first balls I’ve hit since Chicago. I felt okay, so then just thought I would give it a go.
“So I was always going to tee off. It was just a matter of how I felt on the course. And it got progressively a little tighter as I went, but it will hopefully get loosened up here and just another 20 — or 18 hours of recovery and go again tomorrow.”
As the tournament progresses, he’s hopeful that the situation will continue to improve and that he’ll be able to swing the club in something resembling a full manner by the time Sunday’s final round arrives.
“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.”
Despite his struggles, McIlroy’s hopes of claiming a fourth FedExCup title remain alive, thanks largely to a sloppy back nine from Scottie Scheffler and none of the other pre-tournament staggered-start leaders taking the bull by the horns.
Scheffler who started Thursday at 10 under par, two shots ahead of Viktor Hovland, founf the water at the par-3 15th which led to a triple-bogey-six, ultimately carding a one-over 71 whilst playing partner Hovland shot a bogey-free 68 to overtake the Texan and join earlier starters Collin Morikawa and Keegan Bradley on -10.
Morikawa raced to the top of the board with a nine-under 61, while Bradley, who began at -3 to Morikawa’s -1, shot 63.
McIlroy and Rahm, who played together in Thursday’s second-to-last group, are tied for seventh with Matt Fitzpatrick.
After starting the 2022 Tour Championship in pole position, Scheffler looked set to correct last year’s failings as he made birdie on three of his first six holes and built a five-shot advantage. But his triple at 15 came during a stretch where he’d drop five strokes in five holes with his putting issues once again coming to the fore despite returning to the same Scotty Cameron putter that he’s used in all six of his Tour wins and ended the day ranked 30th of 30 in Strokes Gained: Putting.
“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.”