Thursday
Sep062018

Woods, McIlroy put on a show in Philly

Writing from Newtown Square, Pennsylvania

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Spike Lee, when he played the Mars Blackmon character in the Michael Jordan commercials touting Nike sneakers, would say, “It’s gotta be the shoes.”

“No, Mars,” Jordan would intone.

In Thursday’s opening round of the BMW Championship at Aronimink Golf Club, Tiger Woods brought back the Scotty Cameron Newport 2 CSS putter he’d used to win 13 of his 14 professional majors.

He shot 62, with 27 putts.

It’s gotta be the putter, right, Tiger?

“It felt good,” Woods intoned. “It’s familiar. I know the release point and I know how it swings and my body morphed into a position where it understands where it needs to be to release the putter.

“My body just remembers it.”

That’s Woods’ lowest score since a 62 in December 2014, but it wasn’t enough to earn him the solo lead. While he was as many as three strokes ahead at points during the day, Rory McIlroy, like Woods someone who hasn’t performed up to form in recent times, stormed across these finely manicured rolling acres in 62 strokes as well, matching Woods’ 8-under-par on the 1926 Donald Ross design.

McIlroy started 77 minutes after Woods and caught fire mid-round even without the blazing heat. At one point, he made six straight birdies, and visions of a 59 danced in his mind. Bogeys on his 16th and 17th holes nixed that notion, but he put 10 threes on his card and finished with a two-putt birdie from 48 feet at his final hole, the par-5 ninth.

That dynamic duo is a stroke ahead of Xander Schauffele, who snuck in with a 63, which used to be a hallmark score in this championship when it was called the Western Open. Then again, 8-tracks used to be all the rage as well.

A quartet including Justin Thomas and 2014 BMW winner Billy Horschel is at 6-under 64. Rickie Fowler’s in a gaggle at 65. Justin Rose and Jon Rahm are among those at 66, while Jordan Spieth and playoff leader Bryson DeChambeau are among those jammed into 20th at 3-under 67.

Even with a 62, McIlroy had a bit of woulda, shoulda, coulda in mind.

“I wish I could have capitalized on the sixth and seventh holes,” McIlroy said. “But I saw some really good signs last week in Boston and am continuing to see good signs this week.”

Woods and McIlroy tied the competitive course record set by Nick Watney in winning the 2011 AT&T National. It may fall in one of the next three rounds.

“There’s going to be a lot of guys going low,” McIlroy said. “At the start of the week, I thought 15- to 20-under would win, and thought guys would shoot 62 or 63. The course is meant to play a little firmer.

“As a second-shot golf course, you get tested.”

For this crowd, the best of the best, only to some degree. Given the perfect conditions for scoring (94 degrees, a stifling heat index of 101, 13 mph southwest wind), it was no surprise the field of 69 ripped into the hilly course like they were starving for a Philly cheesesteak. Only the course wasn’t as tough. Just five holes played over par – three of them were the long par-3s – and the field averaged 68.130 strokes, the lowest first round in the 115-year history of the tournament, surpassing last year’s layup at Conway Farms Golf Club by about three-quarters of a stroke, and the second-lowest round overall.

Even at 7,129 yards, the course simply isn’t long enough to keep up with today’s high-tech equipment, beginning with the golf ball, extending to the clubs and finally the launch monitors and other gadgets pros use to tune their game like auto racing teams use wind tunnels to perfect their aerodynamics. This is Formula 1 golf.

Fans, including the approximately 30,000 on hand Thursday, love it and it makes for an impressive television show, but the advances render classic courses little more than stylish backdrops for the Birdie Derby of the Week. That’s why Woods scored 62 and had company.

“The fairways are ample wide and the greens are soft – we’re driving it anywhere between 310 and 340 and so it’s really not that long a golf course right now,” said Woods, who hit nine of 14 fairways and 16 greens en route to a round featuring seven birdies, an eagle and a bogey. “Lots of wedges. Give yourself at least 10-12 looks at putts and you get on the hot run like I did, and I’m sure what Rory is doing.”

McIlroy hit 11 fairways, 16 greens, and took 27 putts.

“If you’d have given me a 62 on the first tee today, I’d have taken it,” McIlroy said, allowing that including practice and pro-am play he’d played 23 holes in 17-under.

Schauffele was almost lost in the shuffle, an odd place for a defending Tour Championship winner to be in. So is his place in the standings: 41st, when only the top 30 advance to next week’s finale at East Lake Golf Club.

“I felt I approached all the playoffs with that sense of urgency,” Schauffele said. “I’m trying, and still trying to make the Ryder Cup, obviously. It’s going to take a lot for me to make that late push.”

Tony Finau is considered the favorite, if not an odds-on choice, to be Jim Furyk’s last pick for the U.S. PGA team. Schauffele knows what he’s up against.

“I feel like I need a win,” Schauffele said. “Might not be enough. Tony’s an ATM, a top-10 machine. He’s been killing it and playing great golf.”

Finau opened with 2-under 68 and is tied for 30th, but it’s early in the Birdie Derby.

Around Aronimink

Friday’s tee times are from 7-9 a.m. Eastern, moved up more than four hours to get play finished before an expected thunderstorm like rolls through Philadelphia. Golf Channel’s live coverage starts at 8 a.m. Eastern, 7 a.m. Central. ... Rickie Fowler said he felt good, with no return of the oblique injury that hampered him late in the PGA and kept him out of the first two playoff tournaments. ... The field averaged 67.928 in the second round at Conway Farms in 2015, which was played under lift, clean and place rules and stands as the lowest round in Western Open / BMW Championship annals. Thursday’s 68.130 here is the lowest round playing proper golf. ... Defending champion Marc Leishman scored 4-over 74 and is tied for 67th and last with Adam Scott, who collected two double-bogeys (of the field’s 13) on his first two holes, and Brendan Steele.

Tim Cronin

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