You know you’re doing something right when you impress Phil Mickelson with your short game.
And while world No 1 Rory McIlroy struggled at times on his return to the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, his touch around the greens saved him from even more woe as he posted an opening 72 that left him tied for 55th with Quail Hollow winner Rickie Fowler.
McIlroy has yet to break par in five competitive rounds at Sawgrass and while he came close yesterday, getting to two under with two to play, he came up short with a sand wedge and double bogeyed the 17th but then saved a fine par four at the last that said everything about his confidence around the greens. No wonder Phil was impressed.
Recalling McIlroy’s failed but spectacular attempt to get up and for par at the eighth, Mickelson said: “That was a good shot he hit there. He hit an even better one on 12 that was exceptional. I didn’t know if that was possible to get up and down.
“He hit a phenomenal shot to about seven feet and made it. He has a tremendous short game. I mean, you can’t play and score as well as he does without having a great short game, and he does.”
McIlroy has never felt comfortable at the Stadium Course where his length is not a huge advantage. But playing with Mickelson and Steve Stricker, he went out with the attitude that if he didn’t score well, he would at least learn something new.
As it turned out, it was McIlroy who impressed Mickelson around the greens.
“Steve and Phil both hit it in close on 4 and I was walking up to the green with Phil and I said, well, if nothing else, at least I get a wedge play lesson today,” McIlroy said. “They are two of the best wedge players on TOUR. But yeah, coming from a guy that has such a great short game, that gives me it’s a nice compliment for sure.”
As for his up-and-down on the 12th, he said: “I was just trying to sort of imagine how he would play it. So actually I had a couple loose shots out there today, just sort of flop shots that you had land on the green. One on the 8th hole where I missed it left and I had a very tricky chip. And then on 12, I managed to get that one up and down and that was nice.
“It was tricky enough out there. The greens were firm. The wind was sort of all over the place and made scoring pretty difficult this afternoon I felt.”
Asked how the course suits his eye, he replied: “It doesn’t. It’s very tricky. I find it very tricky. I really have to think about what I’m hitting off the tee. Second shots and stuff are fine, it’s just tee shots for me that I struggle with. It’s only a few tee shots. Most of them are okay.
“I thought if I could shoot something around 70, 69, it would be a good score and I was on track to do that coming up 17. Just a pity to give those couple of shots back. But it’s nothing that a few birdies on the front nine tomorrow can’t fix.”
If McIlroy was good around the greens, Graeme McDowell was disappointing and has work to do to make the cut after a 74.