The water at TPC Southwind’s 11th hole proved treacherous for both Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry last night as the Irish stars struggled to stay in contention with the early WGC-FedEx St Jude Invitational leaders in Memphis.
With the year’s belated opening major just a week away at the PGA Championship in San Francisco, both Irishmen came into the first World Golf Championship event since the return from Covid-19 lockdown in search of much-needed form.
Lowry, The Open champion, who won this WGC event in 2015 when it was known as the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club in Ohio, was attempting to arrest a run of three missed cuts in five starts since the PGA Tour resumed behind closed doors last month
He began that quest in the ideal fashion on the opening day. With regular caddie Bo Martin back on his bag after paternity leave, Lowry was quickly in the groove in Memphis, carding birdies at the second and third on the par-70 course.
Trouble was first encountered at the tough par-four seventh hole when Lowry sent his tee shot the wrong side of a fairway bunker on the way to bogey. Thankfully for the Irishman it was a short-lived setback. A 12ft par-putt at the par-three eighth restored some momentum and the hero of Portrush a year showed his championship mettle with a birdie at the ninth when he rolled in a 16ft putt to return to two under par.
That left Lowry heading to the back nine three shots off the early leaders, who included Bryson DeChambeau and another star finding form after a worrying slump, next week’s defending PGA champion Brooks Koepka.
And then trouble struck at the par-three 11th when he sent his tee shot to the island green into the water on the way to a double-bogey five to fall back to level par.
McIlroy was finding all the par-three holes problematic as he started his opening round from the 10th tee and the first of those was the 11th, his tee shot also coming up short and wet, although in the end it was a good bogey as he holed a 20-footer to escape with a four.
Yet there was more woe to come at the 185-yard par-three 14th. McIlroy, who was bumped out of the world number one ranking when Jon Rahm won the Memorial Tournament a fortnight ago, at least found the green this time but three-putted from 20-feet to slip to two over par.
The the 195-yard par-three fourth brought different problems for the world number two, who has been unable to find the consistency that took him back to the top of the rankings pre-lockdown. McIroy found a greenside bunker off the tee and two-putted for bogey.
There would be back-to-back bogeys, following up with a five at the par-four fifth after finding trees to the right of the fairway and sliding to four over par
Graeme McDowell took an early knock with a bogey at his third hole of the opening round but was still striving to claw back the deficit eight holes later after a steady run of pars.
There was better Irish fortune in the PGA Tour’s opposite-field Barracuda Championship at Tahoe Mountain in California, where West Waterford’s Seamus Power was enjoying the Modified Stableford scoring to take a tie for second place into today’s second round, an eagle and three birdies leaving him at +11, three points behind overnight leader Adam Schenk.