SHEBOYGAN, Wis. — The world’s top two players went for a walk on Thursday afternoon and each was still smiling by the end.
That was a bit of a upset in itself because the round that Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth played together at Whistling Straits was anything but easy. Winds whipped off the shores of Lake Michigan and there were no places to hide from the sun on the treeless course. Huge galleries of fans provided plenty of distraction. Play during the five-hour round went slowly with the duo and playing partner Zach Johnson being put on the clock by No. 15.
Still, McIlroy and Spieth survived it all to each post a one-under 71, far from clubhouse leader Dustin Johnson at -6 but plenty respectable for a group that played under such challenging conditions. (Most of the golfers at the top of the leaderboard had morning tee times, long before the weather changed.)
“I think anything under par this afternoon was a decent score,” McIlroy said in the media area afterward.
“Under par was a good round this afternoon,” Spieth echoed in a press conference held simultaneously just a few feet away. “I think one of the better rounds in the afternoon.”
Both golfers had plenty to overcome, though.
For McIlroy, the top-ranked golfer in the world and the depending PGA champion, it was his first competive round since rupturing a ligament in his ankle in early July. McIlroy admitted to being nervous on the first tee, but quickly settled down after a first-hole bogey. He quickly pointed to the calming influence that his distance gifted him on the par-5 second, which was playing at a meaty 602 yards.
After hitting his drive 311 yards to the fairway, McIlroy hit a three-wood 283 yards into the green and came away with a birdie.
“That was one of the best 3-woods I’ve ever hit,” McIlroy said. “The only thing I was a little worried about going into today is whether I could bring this good golf that I know I’ve been playing into a competitive. After those shots on the second, I felt like I did that.”
McIlroy was asked how his ankle held up after walking 18 holes.
“It was fine, just as it was walking 18 and practicing,” McIlroy said. “As you can see the way I’m hitting the ball and the way I’m getting around the golf course, I have full confidence in it.”
Any questions about McIlroy’s mobility were answered on the 601-yard, par 5 fifth, when he saved a ball from both sand and water to record a ridiculous up-and-down par save.
McIlroy said his only concern was to not get his taped left ankle wet. Luckily, his right ankle was the one planted in deep water when he made the shot.
“I was very fortunate to escape with a par there,” he said.
Spieth, meanwhile, had to shake off some uncharacterstic problems with his putter on the front nine.
The second-ranked player in the world and winner of both The Masters and U.S. Open missed several putts early, copping to the same speed control issues that sank Tiger Woods earlier in the day. Spieth grinded his way through the front nine with nine pars before taking a bogey on the par-5 11th.
But while Spieth ran into trouble on the par-3 12, he responded with aplomb afer his tee shot found an unfortunate spot. Denied a drop from a nearby sprinkler head, Spieth sank a 52-degree wedge for birdie to get back to even par as the crowd roared.
“The shot on 12 obviously turned my emotions around,” said Spieth, who noted that the cheers were louder than he expected them to be.
Spieth moved to one-under with a birdie on No. 16. McIlroy moved to two-under on that same hole, but a bogey on 18 meant both golfers finished with the same 71.
No, one-under isn’t all that glamorous, a score that Zach Johnson, who won last month’s British Open, would have gladly taken playing alongside both golfers. Johnson scored a three-over 75 and will have plenty of work to do to make the weekend cut.
All three golfers will tee off on Friday morning when the course will be fresher and the winds aren’t expected to be as fierce. That’s when they’ll have an opportunity to make a run at Dustin Johnson and Co. after opting for the safe way in the opening round and receiving a decent reward for it.
“When we saw 6-under on the board, we talked about it and knew that was probably not feasible for us, minus a few breaks,” Spieth said. “It was a different golf course and we needed to adjust our expectations because of that.”
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