Photo by Christine Troyke
DUBLIN, Ohio -- Rory McIlroy only gets to play three regular PGA Tour events this year. He showed Thursday why the Memorial Tournament was one of them.
On a Muirfield Village course that already ranks among his favorites, McIlroy had a birdie putt on his last eight holes and converted half of them on his way to a 6-under 66 to join Chris Riley in the lead after the first round.
McIlroy hit the ball so pure that he shot 32 on the front nine despite missing three birdie putts inside 8 feet.
''A great way to start the tournament,'' McIlroy said.
The 22-year-old from Northern Ireland narrowly made the cut at Wentworth in the BMW PGA Championship and wound up in a tie for 24th. Asked the difference between last week and this week, he replied, ''It's about 30 degrees warmer.''
A tournament known for its sloppy weather has been spectacular, and it showed in the scoring on a well-manicured course.
Chris DiMarco and Josh Teater were at 67, followed by a large group at 68 that included Steve Stricker, Dustin Johnson, Stewart Cink and Rickie Fowler, the runner-up at the Memorial last year.
Fifty-one players in the 120-man field broke par.
Luke Donald, in his debut as the No. 1 player in the world ranking, recovered from a slow start by making four straight birdies toward the end of his round for a 70. He played with Masters champion Charl Schwartzel and four-time major champion Phil Mickelson, who each had a 72. Mickelson did that without making a single birdie on the par 5s.
Riley was in the first group to play in the morning and relied heavily on his putter to take advantage of the smooth greens, although scoring conditions were not much different in the afternoon.
''The less I think, the better I play,'' Riley said. ''And today, I didn't have time to think. The pace of play was so good and I didn't stand around and think about shots. I just played golf.''
This is the last tournament for McIlroy before the U.S. Open, a chance for the No. 6 player in the world to atone for his 80 in the final round that cost him a chance to win the Masters. That collapse hasn't stayed with him long. He was third the next week in Malaysia, and while he missed the cut while defending his title at Quail Hollow, he reached the quarterfinals of the World Match Play in Spain.
And now, the U.S. Open beckons -- along with a chance to win on another stronger course in America.
''This is one of my favorite weeks of the year, one of my favorite courses,'' McIlroy said. ''I feel as if it really does set up well for me. I like these sort of golf courses, the likes of here and Akron (Firestone) and Quail Hollow. And I'm swinging well, I'm hitting it good and I'm holing a few putts. Hopefully, I can keep it going for the next three days.''
McIlroy likes to play the game through the air, the brand of golf most often seen in America.
But he doesn't get out as often.
By giving up his PGA Tour membership, he is allowed to play only 10 tournaments. That includes the four majors and three World Golf Championships, with The Players Championship not counting against his number -- although McIlroy chose not to play this year.
And that's probably not going to change soon.
''Even if I did win, I still probably wouldn't take my card up,'' McIlroy said. ''As a European and playing in some European events over the summer, like the French Open and the Irish Open, we have a very busy summer of golf. And I felt like after the PGA last year at Whistling Straits, I wanted to take a couple of weeks off just to refresh. You couldn't really do it. You had a week off and then straight to the (FedEx Cup) playoffs. It was a lot of golf over a short period of time.''
There's a lot of golf left in this tournament, as McIlroy knows well. And there are plenty of players behind him.
Riley, Teater and DiMarco, who all played in the morning, are all ranked out of the top 250 in the world. Fowler is off to a slow start this year, but he looks right at home at the Memorial. Stricker has never had a top 10 at Muirfield Village in 11 tries, a strange statistic he would like to change. And then there's Johnson, who feels his game is about where it was last summer, when he nearly won two majors.
Donald has nine consecutive top 10s and is off to a solid start. For the 33-year-old from England, it felt slightly different from other tournaments, just because of the ranking attached to his name.
''It feels good,'' Donald said. ''I'm excited to be there and looking forward to the challenges. I heard a few 'No. 1' shouts and stuff like that, so you feed off that.''
Notes: Nick Watney, the No. 15 player in the world, had to withdraw because of an illness. He was replaced by Kevin Stadler, who didn't bring his regular caddie with him fearing he might not get in. Stadler turned to Rich Schlaack, who once caddied for Bob Estes and Steve Flesch until retiring years ago. ''I'll lose 20 pounds by the weekend,'' Schlaack said. ... The tournament is down to 118 players because Derek Lamely withdrew after he was 10 over through 12 holes, and Joost Luiten of the Netherlands was disqualified. ... Kenny Perry, a three-time winner at the Memorial, was among four players who shots in the 80s.