PGA Championship

Valhalla Golf Club

no big deal

Rory McIlroy hit only 3 fairways during first round of BMW Championship and couldn’t have cared less

August 17, 2023

Michael Reaves

OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. — Rory McIlroy, one of golf’s finest drivers of the ball, isn’t one to subscribe to a “grip it and rip it” philosophy, but on Thursday he teed off on Olympia Fields Country Club with a feeling of impunity. This is called taking what the golf course gives you. And the North Course at Olympia Fields was giving the long-hitting Northern Irishman the green light to whale away.

So he did.

McIlroy hit three fairways in the first round of the BMW Championship and couldn’t have cared less about it. We’re just spitballing here but shooting a bogey-free five-under 65, good for a share of the lead with Brian Harman, undoubtedly contributed greatly to his laissez-faire attitude toward a discipline in which professional golfers usually take great pride.

It’s called aiming.

Apparently, that was highly overrated on the rain-soaked North Course, even though players could put ball in hand and use preferred lies in the closely mown areas. These were the areas McIlroy seldom occupied.

One can make the argument that golf at the highest levels is generally played in this manner today—all power and with fearless abandon. Lo and behold golf’s governing bodies are making this argument as we speak (not the PGA Tour wants to hear it) and seeks to rein in the offending modern ball. McIlroy, by the way, tends to agree with them.

But at watered down Olympia Fields, Rory made a splash swinging for the fences … if not the general vicinity of his intended target.

“With the golf course being so soft, it's almost an advantage to be playing out of the rough going into some of these greens because you know the ball is not going to spin,” said the defending FedEx Cup champion. “I'm not saying I was trying to aim for the rough, but … 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.”

Had McIlroy exhibited a bit more control, we never would have witnessed easily one of the more thrilling holes of the day, the birdie he registered at the par-4 17th. After blasting your basic 347-yard tee ball into the leftfield bleachers, er … left rough, McIlroy laced a 7-iron through the trees. His ball appeared to miss a tree trunk by inches and then raced through the greenside bunker and over the green. He proceeded to pitch in his third from 40 feet.

“It was a bit of a hit and a hope,” McIlroy, 34, admitted of his second shot through the woods. “Just trying to thread that needle and hit it straight at the 17 sign. Yeah, it was just one of those, it was either sort of chip it out or try to take it on, and it's only Thursday, I thought, what the heck, I'll take it on and see what happens.”

Yeah, what the heck. Embrace the chaos.

McIlroy, however, wouldn’t advocate for further impudence the next three days as jockeying for the Tour Championship heats up. He entered the week third in the FedEx Cup standings and no player has successfully defended the title since the inception of the competition in 2007. He is, however, the only three-time winner.

“I rode my luck a little bit,” he said. “I got decent lies in the rough, and from there I was able to get club on the ball and control my distance OK. Going into the next three days, I'd love to hit more fairways.”

Why would he want that? The guy led the field in strokes gained/tee to green at +3.596.

“That seems very unlikely and very wild,” said Chris Kirk, who shot 66. “But yeah, I guess if you're flying it 330 into the rough and then he's hitting a wedge out and the greens are soft and receptive still. Yeah, that certainly seems unlikely, but if anybody in the world is going to do that, it would be him.”

Naturally, McIlroy said he was more pleased to play “efficient golf” than he was concerned about his wayward driving. No, he did not plan to hit balls on the range, either to fix things. “I don't lose a lot of confidence with the driver. One bad day is not going to make me lose any sleep,” he said.

No, that’s going on in Liberty Corner, N.J., and St. Andrews, Scotland.