SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – Baltusrol is a big hitter's golf course. Baltusrol demands a driver that is equal parts long and straight. Baltusrol is no place for the timid.
That’s been the company line this week at the PGA Championship, echoed by any and all who have been asked; yet on Thursday with scorecards in hand three of the game’s longest played the New Jersey gem with three vastly different styles.
The most glaring example of this divergent game plan unfolded when the threesome of Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson stepped to the 18th tee midway through their opening round (they teed off on No. 10).
Rory McIlroy did what Rory McIlroy does, launching a driver high into the hot and humid skies 320 yards, but missed the fairway. Day, however, teed off with a 3-iron, finding the fairway some 40 yards behind the Northern Irishman.
Day would par the hole, going with 3-iron with his second shot that sailed wide into an awkward lie. McIlroy also made par. It was the story of Day 1 for the high profile three-ball, with Day taking a decidedly measured approach to a course that by all accounts rewards power over all else.
McIlroy went with a game plan that, when clicking, has delivered majors by ridiculously large margins. It was a scheme that made sense given the prevailing thoughts on Baltusrol. A blueprint that could have sent the brutish course and the field spinning had his long game cooperated – but it did not.
On this sweltering day McIlroy found just 9 of 14 fairways and struggled to a 4-over 74 despite being among the field’s top 10 in driving distance (308 yard average).
“I obviously want to play well, but I was trying my hardest out there to make birdies, and I was giving myself chances in the last few holes, and didn't quite convert them,” said McIlroy, who failed to make a birdie for the first time in 29 rounds at the PGA Championship. “Hopefully I'm not shutout tomorrow. I can't remember the last round I had without a birdie.”
By comparison, Day hit just five drivers on Friday and although he connected with 8 of 14 fairways his misses were manageable enough that he was able to find 17 of 18 greens in regulation.
“If I can get iron in my hand, get it down the middle, give myself an opportunity, that's the main goal,” said Day, who was a half dozen strokes better than McIlroy after a 2-under 68.
Although he managed just a single practice round this week at Baltusrol, the byproduct of feeling under the weather when he arrived in New Jersey from last week’s RBC Canadian Open, that conservative approach was set in motion after his caddie, Colin Swatton, walked the course earlier this week.
“I told him there are one of two ways to play this course, be aggressive or try to play to your strengths, which is his iron game,” Swatton said.
It quickly became clear Day opted for the latter in his quest to become the first player to win back-to-back PGA Championships since Tiger Woods in 2007.
But then Day has long adhered to the slow and steady approach when it comes to major championships despite a power game that ranks alongside McIlroy and Dustin Johnson.
“It's probably a little bit more conservative than I usually am, only because it’s a major championship,” said Day, who was three strokes off the early lead when he completed his round. “Any given week on the PGA Tour, there's usually a guy that gets to 7 or 8 under. I think with a major championship, you have got to be patient, take your opportunities when you can and work yourself up to the lead come Sunday.”
Mickelson, the third member of the morning’s marquis threesome, seemed to embrace a strategy somewhere in between Day and McIlroy, but if he became more aggressive later in his round it was likely the byproduct of a dismal start.
Lefty bogeyed his first hole, added two more miscues before the turn and was 4 over through 11 holes before he finally turned things around.
“When you get into a major championship and the penalty for a miss is severe, it's very easy to steer it, try to control it and not swing freely,” said Mickelson after rallying late to finish with a 1-over 71. “That was what I did early on today, I kind of steered a lot of shots. I didn't swing freely. Took me a little while, I kind of got into the flow there towards the end.”
Those who crunch numbers will point to McIlroy’s putting, more so than his driver, that cost him on Thursday and there’s certainly something to that.
McIlroy finished with 35 putts and was spotting the field 3.82 shots in the strokes gained-putting statistic midway through Round 1; but then that ignores Day’s own troubles on the greens.
The world No. 1 took 33 putts and was minus 1.57 shots in strokes gained-putting and yet was still in contention.
Arm-chair quarterbacking only goes so far when it comes to how players plod their way around golf courses and in fairness to McIlroy, and Mickelson, any plan is only as good as the execution.
Yet the results on Thursday were rather straightforward. Among the dichotomy of game plans Day’s less-is-more approach was more than enough for big, bad Baltusrol.