Rory McIlroy survives putter stutter

Rory McIlroy is hot in the chase for the $10 million Tour Championship prize after overcoming a mid-round blip to lie two shots off the lead at East Lake last night.

Failure to maintain momentum has cost the Irishman dearly in all but two tournaments this year — the Irish Open back in May and the Deutsche Bank on the PGA Tour in August — and he was up to his worst tricks last night over the opening holes when even he hardly seemed to know what was coming next, before a brilliant run of birdies got him back on track.

McIlroy is two under after a round of 68.

Hideki Matsuyama and Kevin Chappell have set the pace, both firing 66s to take the early lead.

McIlroy’s old nemesis – the putter – was on its worst behaviour at the 1st when he took three on the pristine surface from about ten feet to open the tournament with a bogey five. He had gone into the week knowing that victory and anything worse than a 2nd place on his own for Dustin Johnson, the leader of the FedEx Cup going into the last event of the season, was essential if he was to pick up the $10m jackpot.

For four holes after that, however, McIlroy was perfection, driving vast distances and with absolute accuracy, hitting his approach shots with total precision and even wielding the putter with unerring accuracy. Three birdies charged him up to two under after five within a stroke of the lead. However, instead of capitalising on this inspirational burst, Rory lost control of his long game.

The Holywood golfer, the only member of Europe’s Ryder Cup team competing in the 30-man event, hit a poor chip to the seventh and compounded the mistake with another three-putt, before finding water with his approach to the next. Those successive double bogeys at the 7th and 8th saw him plunge back into the pack. And with most of those around him reeling off birdies and the odd eagle, he was left with a lot of ground to make up.

To his credit, McIlroy set about putting things right, and went on a fantastic run of four birdies from the 12th to the 16th to go two under, leaving many to wonder how he can deviate from brilliance to the very ordinary in such a short number of holes.

With the Ryder Cup only a week away, much interest centred on the fortunes of the eight American team members in the field. Jordan Spieth, who was still in the hunt for the big money, got off to a wretched start when three over par after only two holes but then his putter began to work in its customary red hot fashion and finished his round on two under par, after successive birdies.

Matt Kuchar was solid as three birdies in his last five holes left him one under par also but American captain Davis Love 111 would have been disappointed to see Patrick Reed struggle, while Phil Mickeson and Jimmy Walker both finished four over for the day.

And with one spot in Love’s team still to be filled, Bubba Watson wasn’t doing his prospects much good by shooting a two over par round of 72.

Kevin Kisner, three under after a 67, was doing his best to capture captain Love’s eye before he finally makes up his mind on his final pick at the close of play on Sunday night.

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