Rory McIlroy produced a brilliant par save at the last to keep the leaders in his sights in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron.
Two under for the day after a brilliant back nine comeback, he was forced to lay up at the ninth after a bunkered drive but almost holed his third from 116 yards and tapped in from five feet to open with a two under par 68.
Playing with world No 2 Phil Mickelson, who stormed home in 30 to card a brilliant 66, McIlroy was delighted not to let a decent round get away from him.
Trailing clubhouse leader Bubba Watson by four shots, McIlroy said: “You can be 10 or 11 off the lead going into the weekend here and still have a chance here.
“But hopefully I can go out there tomorrow and shoot another round in the 60s hopefully, maybe a bit lower than today, and really put myself into good position going into the weekend.”
McIlroy birdied the first from six feet but then bogeyed the 11th and 13th after drives into the trees.
He could easily have dropped another shot at the par-five 16th when his 117 yard approach flew 10 yards too far and sailed into the back bunker.
But he got up and down for his par by holing a tricky eight footer and then started his back nine with a hat-trick of birdies to get into the red before parring the last six.
“That gave me a little bit of a boost to go on,” McIlroy said of his par save at the 16th. “I hit two good shots into 18 and didn’t make birdie but then got on a nice little run at the first, second and third and while I didn’t make any more birdies, I played a lot better the last 11 or 12 holes.
“I got off to a lovely start, hit a nice wedge into the 10th and made birdie. I was quite disappointed to give those shots back on 11 and 13.
“It’s something I’ve actually had a habit of, especially last weekend in Ireland. Every time I made a birdie I seemed to make a bogey. So tried not to do that. I just sort of hung in there.
“I knew there was a few chances coming up if I could just put it on the fairway, and I knew I was hitting my irons good so I knew I was going to have a few chances coming in.”
Mickelson was two over after five holes of his round but birdied the par-five 16th and then picked up another five birdies on his back nine.
The best of them was a holed lob wedge from greenside rough at the sixth and McIlroy confessed that he was impressed by the left-hander’s ability to turn a mediocre round into a great one.
“We fed off each other on the back nine,” said McIlroy, who came home in 32 to Mickelson’s five under 30. “He played a couple of great shots and chipped in on the sixth hole, which was one of the best shots I’ve seen all year.
“He struggled early on but had a great finish. He’s a great player and that’s what great players do. They hang in there and make a score out of something that wasn’t necessarily there.”
Told of McIlroy’s admiration for his shot at the sixth, Mickelson smiled and said: “Well, it was a good one. There were some at Augusta that I kind of remember a little more fondly than Thursday here at Akron, but that was a good one.”
Mickelson and McIlroy clearly enjoyed each other’s company on a perfect morning in Akron as they slowly took advantage of soft conditions to get their title bids off to sub par starts.
The conversation between shots revolved around agronomy and grasses as both players are building practice facilities at home.
But when asked about his assessment of McIlroy’s game at the age of 21 compared to his own at the same age, Mickelson was fulsome in his praise of the Holywood player.
“I do enjoy playing with Rory. He’s fun, he’s interesting, he’s a smart guy,” Mickelson said. “So we always have intelligent conversation. He’s really got a great demeanor, always upbeat, great to be around, not to mention his talent.
“I look at the guys today that are young, in their teens and 20s. Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler and Ryo Ishikawa and some of these other young kids, and their ball-striking is so superior to where myself or other players my age was at when we were in our teens and 20s. I mean, their ball-striking is just extremely impressive.”