OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. (AP) — Rory McIlroy didn't mind being in the rough at rain-soaked Olympia Fields, except for having trees and a bunker between him and the 17th green. And even that didn't matter Thursday in the BMW Championship.
McIlroy found the short grass only six times with 18 tee shots — three of them on par 3s — and no one would have guessed that looking at his card. He played bogey-free for a 5-under 65, giving him a share of the lead with British Open champion Brian Harman in the second FedEx Cup playoff event.
“Only hitting three fairways today and coming up with 65 is a bit of a bonus,” McIlroy said.
The greens were so soft from a two-hour rain delay in the morning that McIlroy realized trying to get at pins was easier coming from the rough, because the ball wouldn't have as much spin.
“I'm not saying I was trying to aim for the rough,” he said with a smile.
And certainly the spot he found himself in at the par-4 17th wasn't ideal. He only had 116 yards left on the 456-yard hole, but he had a stand of trees blocking his path to the green, a big bunker in front of the putting surface.
He punched 7-iron through a gap in the branches, just over the bunker, just over the green and then chipped in for birdie. It was that kind of day.
“There was a couple of branches above the window I was looking at, and I was like, `If it hits those, it’s just going to drop down near that front left bunker and I'll have a decent angle down the green and have a 10-footer or less to save par,” he said. "It was a bit of a hit-and-a-hope. Just trying to thread that needle. It was either chip it out or take it on. And it's only Thursday.
“I thought, `What the heck? I'll take it on and see what happens.'”
Harman, who returned from his British Open title last week at the FedEx Cup playoff opener with some rust, delivered his excitement toward the end of the round. He holed a 40-foot birdie putt on the par-3 16th, and then chipped in for birdie on the 17th.
They were one shot clear of a large group at 66 that included Scottie Scheffler, Matt Fitzpatrick, Sahith Theegala and Rickie Fowler.
Corey Conners of Listowel, Ont., led the Canadian contingent with a 67 in the opening round. Adam Svensson of Surrey, B.C., shot an even 70, while Adam Hadwin and Nick Taylor, both from Abbotsford, B.C., shot a 71 and 72, respectively.
Scheffler had one nine months without finishing worse than 12th, and then has gone consecutive weeks outside the top 20 as his putting has been a struggle. It was nice to see them go in for a chance. Fowler has a chance to earn one of the six automatic spots on the U.S. Ryder Cup team by winning.
As for Fitzpatrick and Theegala, it's all about being among the top 30 in the FedEx Cup after this week to advance to the FedEx Cup finale at East Lake.
Fitzpatrick is No. 40 and needs a good finish to reach the Tour Championship and salvage a disappointing year. Last year's U.S. Open champion beat Jordan Spieth in a playoff at Hilton Head, but he has one top 10 in his last nine starts that has seen his FedEx Cup standing drop.
“Really pleased,” Fitzpatrick said, adding “really” six more times, equalling the number of birdies he made in the opening round.
Theegala is at No. 31 going into the BMW Championship and jumped into the mix by holing out with a 9-iron from the 14th fairway for an eagle.
“I think it’s impossible to ignore,” Theegala said of the FedEx Cup standings. “I think everyone would be lying if they didn’t know exactly where they stood — not exactly but somewhat of an idea what it’s going to take to get to next week.”
Collin Morikawa and Cameron Young were also among those at 67, both trying to improve their Ryder Cup stock. Jon Rahm, two-time defending champion Patrick Cantlay and Jordan Spieth were at 68.
Lucas Glover, going for his third straight victory in as many weeks, shot 70.
Rahm won at Olympia Fields in 2020 on a course so dry and firm that 4-under par got him into a playoff he won over Dustin Johnson. This was green, lush and soaked by heavy rain in the morning that led to a two-hour delay.
The rough was long and wet. The greens were so soft it made it a challenge to hit it the right distance — especially with a back pin — knowing the ball would zip back. That's why McIlroy didn't mind if the ball was in the rough. This was a time to blast away, and the game's most artistic driver put on a show.
“A lot of the tee shots I was just being super aggressive because I knew in the back of my mind I wasn’t really being penalized for it,” McIlroy said. "The golf course is certainly not playing the way it played in 2020. That was not my approach a few years ago here.
“But hopefully with the wind and the sun, the golf course starts to firm up a little bit and starts to play a little bit more like how I think it should play.”
AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf
Doug Ferguson, The Associated Press