Solid return for Rory McIlroy in `super-group` spotlight
Rory McIlroy knew his ailing ankle wouldn`t let him down, but the world number one wasn`t so sure about his game as he stood on the first tee of the PGA Championship on Thursday.
"I was pretty nervous on the first tee," McIlroy said of contemplating his first ball struck in anger since the US Open in June.
"It was nice to get that opening tee shot out of the way," said McIlroy, whose return from a torn ligament couldn`t have come in a brighter spotlight.
The defending PGA Champion was paired in a super-group with Masters and US Open champion Jordan Spieth and British Open winner Zach Johnson as the final major of 2015 got underway at Whistling Straits.
Playing in tough afternoon winds, none of the trio could match the six-under par 66 posted by first-round leader Dustin Johnson in the morning.
McIlroy and Spieth both carded one-under 71, while Zach Johnson settled for a three-over 75.
McIlroy opened with a bogey, but promptly bounced back with a birdie at the second.
"It wasn`t the best of starts, but to hit those two shots on the second hole and make birdie, that sort of settled me down and I could get into the round," the 26-year-old said.
Another bogey-birdie combination at eight and nine saw McIlroy even at the turn -- not before an impressive par save at the par-five fifth from the shallow water of a pond.
McIlroy was in a bunker off the tee of the 603-yard fifth. He pitched out into the fairway and his third shot trickled into the water hazard.
McIlroy rolled up a trouser leg and waded in, splashing the ball to some six feet and making the par putt.
"The only thing I was trying not to do was get my feet wet," McIlroy said. "I just had to remember to hit it hard, and I was very fortunate to escape with a par there."
McIlroy who added birdies at 11 and 16 before closing with a bogey, said his ankle felt fine -- just as it had when he played practice rounds in Portugal last week.
"The only thing I was a little bit worried about, going into today is whether I could bring this good golf that I know that I have been playing into a competitive round," he said.
He`ll need to keep the good golf up, to have a chance of catching Dustin Johnson and fend off Spieth`s bid for the world number one ranking.
The 22-year-old American, trying to become just the third player to win three major titles in a year, opened with 10 straight pars before his only bogey of the day at the par-five 11th.
"I hit some good putts early in the round, had some chances to go under par even in the conditions we had," Spieth said.
"I was a little aggressive early, hit a couple past the hole. Then I over-corrected and was a little soft on some."
Spieth made his first birdie of the day at the par-three 12th, where he chipped in with a wedge from behind the green.
He would have preferred to putt it, but couldn`t take a free drop to avoid a sprinkler head.
"It forced me to have to pitch it, luckily, and it ended up going in," he said.Spieth added another birdie at the par-five 16th, and like McIlroy was pleased to be under par.
"When we saw six-under on the board we knew that was probably not feasible for us," Spieth said. "Doesn`t look like we`ll have quite the wind tomorrow morning, so that should help."
Spieth said the atmosphere around the group was "fantastic".
"The roar when the chip shot went in was louder than I expected it to be, which was pretty cool," he said.
Zach Johnson was disappointed he couldn`t give the gallery more to cheer.
"There were some good irons ... about four or five mental mistakes I can easily recall. That`s frustrating."