McIlroy limps to finish on miserable day on the green

Picture: AP Photo/Charles Krupa

As Rory McIlroy climbed the hill to the 18th tee at Bethpage Black, he turned to caddie Harry Diamond and said, "I can't remember the last time I played a round of golf without a birdie. I was like, I better birdie this last hole."

And he did, stiffing his approach to 5 feet and breaking into a smile when the putt snuck in the right side of the hole.

But there weren't many reasons to smile on an otherwise miserable day on the putting green.

McIlroy signed for 2-over 72 and trails leader Brooks Koepka by nine strokes after the opening round of the 101st PGA Championship.

Two-time PGA champion Dave Stockton, who once served as putting instructor to McIlroy, used to tell his pupil that he didn't want to turn on the TV and be able to tell what score McIlroy had shot.

On more than one occasion on Thursday as McIlroy limped to the finish, he looked resigned to the fact that the putts refused to drop.

"It was either wrong speed at some times or sometimes just a little bit of line, either way, you know, high or low," McIlroy said.

"Hit enough fairways (8/14), felt like I hit enough greens (15/18), and, you know, hit good putts, and some days they just find a way to not go in."

McIlroy ranked second in Strokes Gained: Off the Tee (+2.181) but lost more than a stroke to the field on the greens and said he relied more heavily than usual on the green book for advice in reading the gentle breaks, which can be just as tricky to discern as more undulating greens, he observed.

"Actually reminded me of greens from back home that are quite flat and they just have little subtle breaks here and there," he said.

Bethpage's greens didn't pose too much difficulty for Koepka, the 29-year-old American, who painted the leaderboard at the famed Black course in red.

Koepka posted seven birdies in a bogey-free round of 7-under 63 that set the course record and became the only player with multiple 63s in PGA Championship history (Rd 2, 2018 PGA).

"My putter was hot today. I'm not gonna lie," Koepka said.

The defending champion holds a one-stroke lead over Danny Lee of New Zealand, who expressed little surprise that Koepka once again is atop the leaderboard at a major.

"Have you seen him playing U.S. Opens and PGA Championships the last three years?" Lee said. "I wasn't surprised at all."

Lee carded eight birdies and two bogeys en route to 6-under 64, his low round of the year and best round in a major.

The former U.S. Amateur champion hasn't won since the 2015 Greenbrier Championship and entered the week No. 119 in the world.

"It's not always fairytales and unicorns out here," Lee said.

At the Dell Technologies Championship, Lee injured his back and withdrew after two holes. The next morning he couldn't move his legs.

I was freaking out and telling my wife, OK, are we going to open up a Korean barbecue restaurant now? And she's like, 'Hell, no!'

Lee took just 21 putts on Thursday, lowest in the field, or 14 less than McIlroy. England's Tommy Fleetwood was alone in third place after a 3-under 67.

At No. 16 in the world, he is the highest-ranked player without a PGA Tour victory, and is trying to end a 100-year drought for Englishman since Jim Barnes won the inaugural PGA in 1916.

Four golfers fired 68 and the group at 69 includes Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson, World No. 1 Dustin Johnson, 2015 PGA champion Jason Day, and Jordan Spieth, who is making his third attempt to complete the career Grand Slam.

Only 16 of the 156-man field managed to break par in the opening round. Missing from the list was Masters champion Tiger Woods.

He made a double bogey on his first hole, No. 10, one of two on the round and his distance control with the wedges and his putter weren't up to snuff on Thursday.

Woods elected not to practice on Wednesday, saying he suffered from a cold and he looked rusty in his first start since winning his 15th major in April.

But Woods has yet to start a tournament this season with a round in the 60s and is a notoriously slow starter so it's too soon to close the door on picking up major No. 16.

Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell was among a pack of players at 70. A few crooked drives cost him, but he scrambled well coming home and was pleased with the course setup.

"Anytime we play where par is a good score I lick my lips a little bit because I know I can grind with the best of them," McDowell said.

It was a struggle for Shane Lowry and Padraig Harrington, who will have their work cut out for them to make the 36-hole cut after opening with 5-over 75s.

With one round in the books, Koepka continues to make headlines as he's done with regularity over the last seven majors.

To do so playing alongside Woods on Thursday made a major statement.

"We beg for such precision, such power, such grace," said Golf Channel's David Duval. "And he showed that to us today.”

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