Thursday's golf: McIlroy opens strong in Mexico
Mexico City — Rory McIlroy flirted with a hole-in-one on the same par 4 where Tiger Woods hit out-of-bounds with his first shot in Mexico.
That’s about how their days went Thursday in the Mexico Championship.
McIlroy, already off to a solid start on the back nine, hit a 2-iron on the 305-yard opening hole at Chapultepec Golf Club that landed on the front of the green and was rolling just left of the pin when it settled 6 feet away, leading to an eagle that carried him to an 8-under 63 and a one-shot lead over Dustin Johnson.
Woods got the raucous Mexican introduction for his opening tee shot , a 5-wood that also landed on the green – the wrong green. The ball bounced hard off a temporary green to the left and beyond the out-of-bounds stake into the bushes.
And then he nearly did it again, and ultimately had to get up-and-down from 60 feet away in a bunker to escape with double bogey. After a burst of birdies , he struggled to make much the rest of the way and opened with a 71.
“I pulled across it to try and cut it and hit it dead off the toe,” Woods said. “Hit both of them dead off the toe.”
McIlroy’s 2-iron was the signature shot in an exquisite start to this World Golf Championship. He was 6 under through an eight-hole stretch in the middle of the round, and a 20-foot birdie on No. 8 toward the end of his round is what gave him the lead over Johnson, who played in the group behind.
It was his second straight week with a 63.
“I wouldn’t say it was easy,” McIlroy said. “I hit a lot of good golf shots, but I left myself a lot of tap-ins for birdies. As 63s go, I shot 63 at Riviera last week, but this felt probably a little more stress-free.”
He described his 2-iron as close to perfect, just how he envisioned it, a little cut to take off some distance in the thin air of Mexico City.
The only blemish on his round came at the par-5 sixth, when he pulled his tee shot into the trees and looked as though he would have to punch out back to the fairway. Standing over the ball, McIlroy was looking up. He saw a gap between two trees with a tiny limbs, so even if he clipped one, his 8-iron should have been enough to give him a reasonable shot at the green.
There was one limb that concerned him, which McIlroy described as “something a dog would pick up.”
“The one branch it could not hit, it hit,” he said. “It all levels out at the end of the day. I’m just in a good frame of mind, managing my game well, putting went good. And if you putt well, it takes pressure off the rest of your game. And that’s where it’s at.”
Johnson won the Mexico Championship two years ago, part of three straight victories during the best stretch of golf he ever played. Johnson said he struggled with his swing at Pebble Beach and Riviera, and worked all week on the range in Mexico.
“It’s starting to feel the way it did two years ago,” he said.
Much like McIlroy, there wasn’t a lot of stress in his game. Johnson only missed three of the tree-lined fairways and was rarely out of position except on No. 12, where he lost his drive well to the right. He had no shot to the green, so he tried to put it in the bunker. It went in and out of the bunker, onto the fringe and he holed the putt from 20 feet for his third straight birdie to start the round.
He also had back-to-back eagle putts, driving the first green to 20 feet and hitting driver on the 383-yard second hole over the trees and onto the green – as Bubba Watson was putting – to 18 feet. He made birdie on both.
“I feel like I’ve got this altitude thing figured out,” he said.
Justin Thomas, who lost in a playoff last year to Phil Mickelson, chipped in from 50 feet behind the green on No. 15 for eagle and was at 66. He was tied with Matt Kuchar, who already won in Mexico once this season at the Mayakoba Classic.
Jordan Spieth, with his father filling in because caddie Michael Greller’s father died, opened with a 75.
Woods was fortunate he only started with a double bogey. He didn’t realize immediately that his first tee shot was out-of-bounds, and he had reason to think his second tee shot would turn out the same.
“It was on the exact same line,” Woods said, who added he thought for a second, “This could be a pretty big number.”
He had to play from the bushes to punch it into the bunker, and blasted out to a foot for his double bogey. After his stretch of three straight birdies got him under par, he twice missed par putts from about 4 feet, though he holed a 15-foot par putt on the 17th.
He summed up his round aptly: “Got off to a bad start. Got it going after a little bit there, made three in a row. Couldn’t make any birdies after that for some reason. It is what it is.”
Mickelson, two weeks removed from his victory at Pebble Beach, could relate. He bogeyed three of his first four holes on the back, shot 40 on the front and opened with a 79.
Eun-Hee Ji of South Korea led the LPGA Thailand by two shots after opening with a 9-under-par 63 at Chonburi, Thailand.
Ji won her fifth U.S. LPGA Tour title in her previous event last month, the season-opening Tournament of Champions in Florida.
She picked up right where she left off, in Chonburi.
After an opening birdie and a bogey on the third hole, Ji birdied nine out of the following 14 holes on the Siam Country Club Pattaya’s Old Course.
In her wake were Minjee Lee of Australia, Danielle Kang of the United States, and Jenny Shin of South Korea, each with a 65.
Andres Romero shot a 6-under 66 at Rio Grande to take the first-round lead in the PGA Tour’s Puerto Rico Open.
Romero birdied three of his last five holes in a bogey-free round at Coco Beach Golf and Country Club. The 37-year-old Argentine player won his lone PGA Tour titles in New Orleans in 2008 and has two European Tour victories.
Austria’s Sepp Straka was a stroke back in the event that was canceled last year because of Hurricane Maria.
Ben Crane was at 68 with Ollie Schniederjans, David Hearn, Roberto Castro, Martin Piller, Roberto Diaz, Joey Garber, Nate Lashley and Alex Kang. Clemson senior Bryson Nimmer topped the group at 69.
Daniel Berger, at No. 72 has the highest world ranking in the field, opened with a 70. D.A. Points, the 2017 winner, shot 71. Puerto Rico’s Rafael Campos, a winner on the Web.com Tour at the start of the year, had a 73.
The winner will receive a two-year exemption on the PGA Tour and an exemption to the PGA Championship, but won’t get an invitation to the Masters.