FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — Picking the hardest hole at Bethpage Black is like debating ice cream flavors. Every answer, to some degree, is correct. Statistically speaking, the 15th held the honor Thursday, surrendering just four birdies and wreaking havoc with 82 bogeys or worse. It's the epitome of the Black's toughness. Need to hit it long, need to hit it straight, and need to hit the green. Anything else is FUBAR.
A special accent on the first two requirements. Players that found the rough hit the green just 15 percent of the time; only 30 percent of the field was able to scramble for par.
Rory McIlroy had already taken care of the hard part. He punched in the launch codes for his drive and pressed send, his ball traveling 336 yards off the tee. It trickled off the fairway but came to a halt in the manageable intermediate cut. The drive was 50 yards farther than the field average on the 15th, the longest of the day. Mission, accomplished.
So there was McIlroy, standing just 160 yards away from a pin, a short iron in hand where most held a 5-iron. His swing was sweet, the impact solid, trajectory true.
Due to the 15th's elevation, a player cannot see their ball land. McIlroy, believing his shot to be good, waited for confirmation from the throngs that followed his grouping with Jason Day and New York adopted son Phil Mickelson.
But the crowd, as boisterous as any on the day, remained silent.
McIlroy took the hint, and shook his head. His ball went long, a spot one absolutely cannot go on the 15th, a spot that led to a bogey.
As he walked to the 16th, there was a look back down the hill and another head shake. How could that have possibly gone wrong?
McIlroy finished with a two-over 72 on Thursday. The score leaves him T-53, nine shots back of Brooks Koepka.
It looked better. Should have been better. He led the field in strokes gained/off-the-tee. He hit 15 greens—one more than Koepka, tied for second-most. That's not just executing strategy; that's a "sold my soul" level of production.
"I felt like I gave myself enough chances today to shoot something sort of in the mid-60s," McIlroy said.
Unfortunately for McIlroy, the providence stopped at the putting surfaces.
They are not particularly hard, Bethpage Black's greens, at least compared to major championship venues. Throughout the week, the players have made a point to remark on their consistency and condition. But when the Ulsterman reached them, he stood behind his lines as if he was trying to decipher Pig Latin.
"They are deceptive. That's why I've been using the green book a bit this week because they are very subtle," McIlroy said. "Actually reminded me of greens from back home that are quite flat, and they just have little subtle breaks here and there."
The subtlety was enough of a curveball to submarine McIlroy's round. He had a whopping 36 putts on the day, ranking 113th in strokes gained/putting. His lone birdie make came at the final hole.
"It was either wrong speed at some times or sometimes just a little bit of line, either way, you know, high or low," McIlroy said."
The rest of his short game wasn't much better. He was one-for-three in scrambling for par, and despite being around the green in two on both par 5s, he failed to make birdie. By the numbers, McIlroy has had worse displays. Given the symphony he orchestrated tee-to-green, though, this out-of-tune display was tough on the ears.
This also continues a troubling trend for McIlroy. Though the signage around Bethpage reads "PGA," the setup leans toward USGA. The field averaged 73.064 on Thursday, a figure higher than the 2009 U.S. Open scoring mark (72.928). While McIlroy is a former U.S. Open champ, the tournament has not been kind to the 30-year-old, as Rory has posted just one top-20 finish since his 2011 triumph at Congressional. Blame it on his reliance of bomb-and-gouge or a string of bad luck. Whatever your taste, there's no denying that, when the score board calls for a race to 16-under, McIlroy is one of the best in golf. When it calls for mitigating mistakes, his name has been curiously absent.
It is just one round, in the midst of a strong campaign—one featuring a Players victory. For his part, he remains positive heading into Friday.
"Keep hitting good shots. Don't let it frustrate you. Keep hitting good putts," McIlroy said. "Eventually things will turn. Hopefully that birdie on the last was the turning point, finish on a positive note and come back tomorrow and hopefully get into red figures for the tournament."
Bad rounds happen, especially at Bethpage Black. But, as his indignation on 16 showed, it's a tough swallow considering what could have been.