One year after relaunching his 2012 season in Akron, Rory McIlroy returned to Firestone to turn back the clock again and opened with a level par 70 in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
Guaranteed four rounds for the first time this year and under orders to play with a smile on his face for the second year running as he seeks to bounce back in Rubber City, the world No 3 opened with the same score for the second year in a row.
“Everything is pretty good. I’m driving the ball a lot better, a lot more confident with the driver, which is good,” McIlroy said 12 months ago before going on a magical, end of season run. “Once I put it on the fairway I can give myself chances for birdies, which is nice.”
Last night he made five birdies, three bogeys and a double bogey but it remains to be seen if he can follow up with three rounds in the 60s, as he did last year en route to fifth place.
“Yeah, some good, some bad,” he said. “I felt like I hit a lot of good shots out there, drove the ball well for the most part, gave myself a lot of chances for birdies, and I just threw a few shots away around the greens.
“I made double at 10 from nowhere, don’t get up‑and‑down from the edge of the green on the 8th hole, things like that, don’t get up‑and‑down from the edge of the green on 18.
“You know, you start to save shots there, and all of a sudden you’re three, four‑under par, five‑under par. No, I played well, hit a lot of good shots and felt more comfortable with my putting, which was a good sign.”
That McIlroy is more concerned about his putting that his driving is telling and given that he had 27 putts - albeit hitting just 55 percent of the greens in regulation - the signs are encouraging as he counts down to his defence of the US PGA title at Oak Hill next week.
One under through five holes, he found himself two over with eight to play when he bogeyed the eighth and double bogeyed the 10th.
But while he has had a tendency to let his head go down in those situations at times this season, the freedom of having four rounds and another Akron pep talk from putting coach Dave Stockton have left him in a better frame of mind.
“I set myself a goal,” he said. ” I just wanted to get back to even par. So I tried to do that. I birdied 12 and 13, which got me back to par, and then I started to hit some really good shots.
“I hit a great shot into 14 that I didn’t convert and then I hit a really good iron shot onto 15 which I made for birdie.
“Just trying to stay patient. I mean, we’ve got four days here, so no point in trying to be aggressive. I mean, I’m just trying to enjoy myself this week, enjoy my golf, play with a bit more of a smile on my face, and I sort of did that.”
Asked which came first for him, the smile or the good play, he said: “I think the two go hand in hand. I think you have to have a positive attitude out there to play well. But saying that, it’s easier to smile when you play well.”
As Shane Lowry, two under after six, dropped three shots in his last six holes for a two over 72 (a six shot improvement on his Firestone debut in 2009) and Graeme McDowell fought his swing and still posted a one over 71, McIlroy found himself six shots behind Webb Simpson (64) in 19th.
Confessing that he is not sharp, he knows he has another three rounds to find his edge as he prepares to play another five events in the next seven weeks
‘I threw a few shots away around the greens but with a little more competitive play and a little more sharpness, that should be rectified pretty easily,” he said. “I saw a lot of good signs out there.
“I thought I drove the ball for the most part, really well. I hit the driver good. Some of my irons shots very very nice too. If I can keep hitting the ball in the fairway and giving myself plenty of chances for birdies that’s all I can ask of myself.
“I felt like I holed a lot of nice putts out there too. I did a good bit of work with Dave Stockton over the last few days and I am starting to feel more comfortable with the putter.”
Simpson leads by one from Open runner up Henrik Stenson on six under with Tiger Woods lurking on four under alongside Chris Wood, Ryan Moore and defending champion Keegan Bradley after a 66.
Putting this week’s test in perspective for those travelling to Oak Hill for the final major of the season, Woods said: “Oak Hill is just like this place but a little bit more difficult. You don’t quite have the slopes and undulations that we’re going to face next week here.
“There’s some pretty severe slopes that we’re going to have to deal with at Oak Hill and a couple putts out there that are a little bit on the quick side if you get in the wrong spot, but nothing like what we’re going to face next week.”
Meanwhile, at the Reno-Tahoe Open in Nevada, Padraig Harrington bounced back from being three over par after just five holes but still made just two birdies in the modified stableford event with 29 putts.
As a result, his score of 0 points left him tied for 88th and 15 points behind Josh Teater, who had an eagle, six birdies and two bogeys in the equivalent of a six under 66.
Harrington began his day with a bogey, missing a four foot par putt after bunkering his approach. A double bogey at the fifth, where he drove out of bounds, left him playing catch up all day. But he could make just two birdies, holing a 10 footer at the sixth and a four footer at the 15th.