Despite hitting a wedge 50 feet past the pin at his final hole and then missing from four feet for par, McIlroy looked close to best as he finished just two shots behind early leader Thomas Pieters at Firestone Country Club.
There were a few incidents of mis-clubbing, but as he was pulling the clubs and double-checking his yardages, he took those errors on the chin and insisted his game is trending in the right direction as he counts down to the final major of the season next week. “There were a couple of times where I probably should have hit another club, but that’s on me, that’s not on anyone else,” McIlroy said. “So I’d much rather be frustrated at my own decision than someone else’s.”
After finishing close to the top of the putting statistics at The Open, McIlroy holed 106-feet of putts and used the blade just 26 times as he made five birdies and two bogeys in a three-under par opening round.
Playing partner Jordan Spieth, the Open champion managed 140 feet after draining consecutive putts from 33 feet and 52 feet on their back nine. But he also shot 67 to leave them two strokes behind early leader Pieters, whose 65 gave him a one-shot lead over Russell Knox, as McIlroy and Spieth shared third with Kevin Kisner, Ross Fisher, Bubba Watson, and Jon Rahm.
“It was good,” McIlroy said of a round in which he scrambled six times out of seven for par. “I kept in good spirits out there and it was good to have my best friend on the bag.
“It’s different. You are hearing a different voice. But I stuck to it today pretty well and I guess it’s the start of a new chapter in my career and we’ll go from here.”
Starting on the back nine, McIlroy rolled in a birdie putt from 26 feet at the 11th to continue the good putting streak he began at Royal Birkdale with a share of fourth behind Spieth.
One of his biggest problem in recent seasons has been his erratic wedge play and he admitted he’s looking to sharpen up that aspect of his game before next week’s US PGA at one of his pet venues, Quail Hollow. “Just good signs in my game,” he said of his ambitions for the week. “Go out and hopefully see little improvements as the week goes on.
“Obviously I would love to win, I would love to go into next week with a lot of confidence. But I feel like my confidence is building. I just need to see my game get a little bit sharper, especially the wedges.” What pleased him most was his putting, especially over the last 11 holes.
“I’ve been working hard at it, trying to blend something I have been working on with a little bit of feel as well and I feel like it is coming together,” McIlroy said.
“I think I finished fourth in the stats at Birkdale and obviously had a good putting day today.
“So it’s definitely moving in the right direction and definitely something to build on.”
A par putt from 10 feet at the 17th seemed to inspire him and after made a four footer for birdie at the 18th to turn in one under, he was more impressive on his back nine.
After getting up and down from sand short of the green at the par-five second for another birdie, he then hit another wedge to four feet at the third to move within one stroke of the lead on three-under. If the par putt he made on the 17th was huge for his confidence, the 18 footer he made for par at the fourth, where he pulled his approach 30 yards left down a slope but escaped unscathed, was even bigger.
Having watch Spieth hole a 33 footer for birdie at the fifth, McIlroy looked on as The Open champion made another from 50 feet at the sixth and promptly rolled in a 13 footer of his own there to move to four under. Looking forward to building momentum for a crack at a fifth major in next week’s US PGA, he was happy with his start.“It would have been nice to finish four-under but 67 was a fair reflection of how I played,” he said.