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McIlroy trying to avoid distractions

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PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Rory McIlroy made a great save Thursday at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

It’s another testament to how quickly his game is coming back together.

He didn’t just erase his own mistakes at Spyglass Hill. He erased his father’s mistakes.

They may be laughing about what happened at the seventh hole for a long time, especially if it leads to something special on Sunday, when McIlroy would love to hoist the trophy in his first appearance in this event.

With the early morning sun low in the sky, McIlroy’s father stood aside his son at the seventh tee.

“There were a few shadows out there,” McIlroy said. “And as I was about to take my driver away, I saw his shadow move. So, I backed off it.”

Gerry McIlroy got a stern “stand still” from his son, and then he watched his boy lash a terrible drive “way right.” From a tough spot, his son then knocked his second shot in the water.

The father-son bucket-list trip wasn’t off to such a great start, but that’s where the good son was really good.

“I chipped in,” McIlroy said.

It was good for a birdie on McIlroy’s way to shooting 4-under-par 68, which moved him into early contention just three shots off the lead. The start gives him a chance to win in his PGA Tour debut this year.

It was a recovery shot the McIlroys won’t soon forget.

“You’re forgiven,” Rory told his dad.

This is McIlroy’s first appearance at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and he would relish winning it after going winless last season. He would especially relish it with his father playing alongside him.

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“It’s awesome,” McIlroy said of teaming with his father. “We’ve had a blast the last few days.”

These pro-ams come with challenges, and McIlroy explained them after Thursday’s round. There’s the novelty of playing with an amateur, wanting that experience to be special, but there’s also the serious matter of wanting to hoist an important trophy.

McIlroy knows the challenges well, having played multiple times with his father in the Dunhill Links, a European Tour format akin to this week’s. Rory said the team aspect can detract from the individual quest. It’s a fine line when the intensity of one is different from the other, where a world-class player can lose an edge.

“This is a golf tournament, and there’s a lot of world-ranking points at stake,” McIlroy said. “So, I made a conscious effort this week to treat it as that.”

So Rory didn’t warm up next to his father Thursday morning, so he could “get my game head on.”

McIlroy said it worked.

The field is strong this week, and a victory would carry a lot of weight. The top three players in the Official World Golf Ranking are here with No. 1 Dustin Johnson, No. 2 Jon Rahm and No. 3 Jordan Spieth all playing. A victory would be a boost to McIlroy’s bid to return to No. 1.

“I feel good,” McIlroy said. “I'm healthy and I'm able to practice. I'm able to do everything I want to do. I'm in a really good frame of mind and that helps, too.”

McIlroy, 28, a four-time major championship winner, struggled through a nagging rib injury most of last season. He fell outside the top 10 in the world and watched Justin Thomas join Johnson and Spieth in the limelight that was once mostly his.

With a tie for third at the Abu Dhabi Championship in his first start this year, and a second-place finish at the Dubai Desert Classic a week later, McIlroy is feeling good about his bid to return to top form.

Former No. 1 Jason Day knows what that could mean.

“He's just explosive,” Day said. “Not only explosive off the tee, and with his iron shots, but he can make a lot of birdies quickly. He's a guy that's not afraid of going low and lapping the field.”

Day remembers. He finished second to McIlroy at the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional.

“I lost by eight,” Day said.

Day sees history-making talent in McIlroy.

“He has the tools to be kind of Tigeresque,” Day said. “Obviously Tiger is Tiger, but to be in the same sentence as Tiger is pretty unique . . . I think Rory has the ability to go out there and win more majors than he has right now. I'm sure that's what he wants to do.”

McIlroy played Thursday alongside Phil Mickelson, who opened with a 69.

“His game sure looks sharp,” Mickelson said.

Sharp enough to save a father-son outing and a chance for a memorable weekend.