CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The two men entered the week as heavy favorites, and they left Quail Hollow after the opening round with matching over-par scores.
The two have shared the pre-tournament spotlight, with Spieth gunning for the final leg of the career Grand Slam and McIlroy returning to a course upon which he has feasted like no other. While they both flashed the form needed to lift the Wanamaker Trophy at various points Thursday, they each signed for a 1-over 72 that left them five shots behind Thorbjorn Olesen and Kevin Kisner.
For Spieth, the issue came surprisingly on the greens. After rolling in, what seemed like, miles of putts over his last three starts, Spieth didn’t make anything over 6 feet all day. The recently-renovated Bermuda greens vexed many players in the field, and even one of the PGA Tour’s best putters was not immune.
“I can’t putt any worse than I did today,” Spieth said. “The score won’t be any higher than it was today if I’m driving the ball like I did today.”
McIlroy was also flummoxed from short range, missing everything outside 6 feet, but his problems extended to the tee as well. The Ulsterman bogeyed each of the first three par-3s he faced Thursday, and after clawing his way to 2 under for the round suffered a costly double bogey on the drivable par-4 14th after hooking his tee shot into the water and flubbing a chip.
“Played that stretch of holes, 13, 14, 15, in 3 over,” McIlroy said. “So if I just could have had that three-hole stretch back, but I think other than that I played nicely. Did what I needed to do.”
It was an oddly positive refrain to hear from a top-ranked player coming off an over-par round. The PGA has traditionally been a place where excitement is built one birdie at a time, and by week’s end the leaderboard is awash with red figures. This tournament hasn’t crowned a winner who failed to break par in the first round since Y.E. Yang in 2009.
But with forecasted rain staying away, the sub-air system sucked any remaining moisture right out of the ground at Quail Hollow. What resulted was a long layout with thick, penal Bermuda rough and greens that ranged from “dicey” to “absurd” depending on who you asked.
It added up to an unusually jam-packed leaderboard, as no player shot 5 under or better in the opening round of a PGA for the first time since Oakland Hills in 2008. It also means that Spieth and McIlroy remain firmly in contention heading into a pivotal second round.
That particular fact was not lost on the two-time PGA champ.
“I can see a low one out there. It’s just a matter of not shooting yourself in the foot too often like I did today,” McIlroy said. “I’m only five behind. Four under is the best score out there, and it’s a tough golf course. I shoot something in the 60s tomorrow, move right up there. So yeah, I’m in it.”
None of Spieth’s 11 career Tour wins have included over-par openers, but he at least gave himself a chance to break that trend with his closing stretch. While it wasn’t on the level of his salvage at Royal Birkdale, Spieth was 3 over and already at risk of a missed cut after a three-putt bogey on the sixth hole, his 15th of the day.
Just as caddie Michael Greller intervened with a pep talk during the final round of The Open, Spieth again credited Greller for offering some timely encouragement before heading to the next tee.
“When we were at 3 over, he said, ‘Grind these last few. You had a chance to win Augusta and we were in worse position at this point.’” Spieth said. “And he was spot-on.”
Spieth responded with birdies on each of the next two holes to not only return to the fringe of contention but escape with a bit of momentum on a day when big names like Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose and Phil Mickelson essentially saw their title chances come to an abrupt end.
Sure, there were loose shots and missed opportunities, more than either would have preferred. But despite their respective stumbles, Spieth and McIlroy each enter the second round equipped with a realistic chance to win.
And after starting in the black, a chance is more than either could have hoped for.
“We’re still looking at single digits winning this tournament, I imagine, and potentially 6 under, something like that,” Spieth said. “Somebody could really get it going, but if that doesn’t happen then it’s definitely single digits.”