Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy shot a pair of three under 67s to keep their minds on the job heading in the final two rounds of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron.
With no 36-hole cut to worry about at Firestone, McDowell knows all too well that the weekend can be “a death march” for those with nothing to play for but the minor placings and some form as the clock ticks down to the final major of the season next week.
“You want to get yourself established on this leaderboard so you have something to fight for this weekend as opposed to chewing your shoelaces all weekend,” he said.
Michael Hoey and Tiger Woods are in the shoelace department after Jim Furyk added a 66 to his opening 63 to lead Spain’s Rafael Cabrera Bello (65) by two shots on 11 under par.
Hoey is second last on 13 over after a 75 while Woods is also out of the equation on two over after he again struggled on the greens in posting a two over 72.
Asked to sum up his day, Woods tried humour: “Okay, sweet. I hit it good, made nothing, and we can all go eat now.”
He elaborated in detail, however, adding: “I get in these little spells where it’s hot or cold. Generally I was a decent putter over the years, but lately it’s been very streaky, I’m making everything or I make nothing.”
That’s not what a player wants less than a week before the final major of the season but Woods insisted he worked out what was going wrong late in his round.
It wasn’t his rhythm, he said.
“It was more path than anything else. I had my lines good, but it’s just setting my path out. I was trying to marry the two. I was trying to figure it out last night on the putting green and couldn’t get comfortable enough on the golf course and finally felt it, and then, boom, made a putt [for birdie on his 17th hole]…
“Yesterday was bad putts. Today I had good speed and just still not quite right. And the putts I did pure, they were just lipping out. So that’s fine. But I just need to get more consistent where I just don’t hit a bad putt. As soon as I start doing that, everything will be fine.”
McDowell is not searching for anything more than clarity with regard to his swing thoughts and he’s happy he’s just a shot outside the top 10 after coming home in two under par for his 67.
“I’m not really searching as such,” he said of the state of his game. “I’m just trying to bed in a few swing thoughts. I’m a bit wishy‑washy with my thoughts in that I’ve got five different ways of doing the same thing, and I just need to pick one and stick with it.
“I was a little bit that way at the Open Championship where every evening I was going to the range just trying to get my thoughts together.
“I think I found a couple of things on the course today, which there’s nothing like competitive practice, and there’s no doubt, I feel very flat this week coming off the back and competing at the Open and looking at sort of next week.
“It’s amazing how you can lose sight of the fact that we play for a lot of money here this week. It’s a very prestigious event because it’s sort of sandwiched in between the last two major championships of the year, and it’s very hard to not have one eye on next week.
‘That’s why the key to this week is to try and get on the board Thursday and Friday because very quickly it just becomes a dress rehearsal for next week. It’s a prestigious event, this one. You don’t want to forget that. I’m sure there will be guys who would like to be missing the cut right this second.”
Avoiding the “death march” is a positive for McDowell and even more important for McIlroy, who is going through a comparatively lean spell compared to the fireworks he produced between last September and March, when he won the Honda Classic to become world No 1.
Now world No 3, McIlroywas three over through four holes on Thursday but has since made nine birdies, one bogey and a double bogey six to join McDowell in joint 12th.
“Going out there and making six birdies, it was nice,” McIlroy said of his round. “If I can get lower for the next two days, I won’t be far off.”
He believes his game is improving and that he now has more confidence with the driver and the wedges.
“Once I put it on the fairway I can give myself chances for birdies, which is nice,” he said. “My wedge play has been great. I’ve been giving myself a lot of wedges and hitting a lot of wedges close, so that’s been good.”
While McDowell and McIlroy are guaranteed their Ryder Cup places, Padraig Harrington may need to win this week or next to have any chance of earning a seventh cap in Chicago.
The Dubliner is playing in the $3m Reno-Tahoe Open, having failed to qualify for the Bridgestone Invitational this year and after a second successive seven-point day in the modified stableford event at Montreaux.
He remained inside the top 25 but now 10 points behind Brazil’s Alexandre Rocha, who had an eagle (+5) and seven birdies (+14) and three bogeys in a 16 point round that left him two clear of JJ Henry and John Mallinger on 24 points.
Harrington’s round was a rollercoaster affair, especially on his opening nine.
Starting at the 10th, the three-time major winner had four birdies (+8 pts), four bogeys (-4 pts) and a solitary par at the 15th.
He then birdied the first and second to get to 15 points for the tournament. But as has happened many time already this season, the birdies dried up and he dropped a shot on the fifth to lose ground on the leaders.