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Friday’s golf: McIlroy, Cantlay the sole survivors under par at Olympia Fields

Doug Ferguson
Associated Press

Olympia Fields, Ill. — Rory McIlroy doesn’t need fans to keep his head in the game at the BMW Championship. Olympia Fields is so tough it won’t allow anything but his full attention on every shot.

McIlroy and Patrick Cantlay made their share of mistakes Friday and shrugged them off because that’s bound to happen on the toughest test the PGA Tour has seen this year.

Rory McIlroy reacts after missing a birdie putt on his final hole of the day on the 9th green during the second round Friday of the BMW Championship golf tournament at Olympia Fields Country Club in Olympia Fields, Ill.

By the end of another steamy afternoon south of Chicago, they were the sole survivors under par.

One week after McIlroy admitted to going through the motions without spectators around to provide the cheers, he had a 1-under 69 to share the 36-hole lead with Cantlay.

It was plenty tough for Tiger Woods, whose PGA Tour season appears to be two rounds from being over.

He didn’t have enough good shots to atone for his bad ones, and he had to make a 35-foot par putt on his final hole to shoot 75, leaving him nine shots behind. Woods was toward the bottom of the pack at a tournament where he needs to finish around fourth to be among the top 30 who advance to the Tour Championship.

Cantlay holed a 50-foot chip for birdie, and holed out a 50-yard wedge for eagle. He also missed the green on three of the par 3s, the last one leading to a double bogey. He finished with a 6-iron out of the thick rough and made a 40-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole. It added to a 68, matching the best score of the round.

McIlroy and Cantlay were at 1-under 139, one shot ahead of Hideki Matsuyama and Dustin Johnson, who were going in opposite directions when it was time to sign their scorecards. Matsuyama, the only player to reach 4 under at any point this week, dropped four shots over his last 10 holes for a 73. Johnson finished birdie-birdie for 69.

The phrase “U.S. Open” is being heard a lot more than “FedEx Cup” this week.

“I think the test is what’s helped me focus and concentrate because if you lose focus out there for one second … just one lapse in concentration can really cost you around here,” McIlroy said. “I think one of the big keys this week is just not making big numbers. If you hit it out of position, get it back in position, make sure that your worse score is bogey and move on. Honestly, bogeys aren’t that bad out here.”

He made a mistake on the 14th hole by going long and left, and only a great wedge to a back pin to 5 feet kept him from a big blunder, even though he missed the par putt. He flirted with trouble later in his round on the fifth hole with a wedge from 134 yards that came up 30 yards short, the pin tucked behind a big bunker. He left that in collar short of the green and got up-and-down for bogey.

Cantlay doesn’t expect to hole out twice a round with wedges and hopes he can sharpen up his game a little. Still, he loves the idea of having to think and plot his way around the course.

“It’s about as stiff of a test as you would want,” Cantlay said. “It’s very, very difficult, and you have to play from the fairway, and you have to play from below the hole, frankly. The greens have so much slope on them that you really need to be putting uphill. And so if you’re in the rough, it gets exponentially harder to do that.”

For those playing well — anywhere within a few shots of par in this case — it was an enjoyable challenge. For everyone, regardless of the score, it was a grind.

“I don’t know if any rain will matter, really,” Kevin Kisner said after a bogey-bogey finish ruined an otherwise good day and gave him a 70, leaving him three shots behind. “I think even par wins the golf tournament.”

Patrick Cantlay prepares to hit on the 16th tee during the second round Friday of the BMW Championship golf tournament.

Doesn’t 280 always win the U.S. Open? That’s what Arnold Palmer used to say.

And this feels like a U.S. Open.

Go back to Shinnecock Hills two years ago in the U.S. Open to find the last time someone won at over par (Brooks Koepka). For non-majors, the tour said over par hasn’t won since Bruce Lietzke at the Byron Nelson Classic in 1981.

It’s a massive change from last week, when Johnson won by 11 shots at 30-under 254.

“Last week was fun, too,” Johnson said. “But this week is more of a grind, that’s for sure. Every single hole out here is difficult. You’ve got to really be focused on every shot that you hit.”

Among those two shots behind was Louis Oosthuizen, whose birdie in the dark on the final hole last week at the TPC Boston moved him to No. 70 to qualify for the BMW Championship.

“This is the golf course I needed to do what I must do,” he said of moving into the top 30. “Look, this can go really south on you quickly. You can shoot 6, 7 over on this golf course very quickly. But if you really stick to it and play middle of the greens and lag those putts, you can make a lot of pars. And you’re not going to lose spots if you’re making pars.”

LPGA

Jackie Stoelting returned from a 14-month maternity break to take a share of the first-round lead in the LPGA Tour’s Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

With her mother with her to look after son Baron, the 34-year-old Stoelting had a bogey-free 7-under 64 – playing her first nine in 5-under 30 – to join Anna Nordqvist and rookie Esther Lee atop the leaderboard.

“Didn’t really have many expectations, but also have an extremely different perspective on life now that I’m a mom,” Stoelting said. “I was pretty much in quarantine the last 11 months with a child.”

She played in the first group of the day off the 10th tee at Pinnacle Country Club, giving her the afternoon off and a late start Saturday in the second round.

She made her first tour start since June 2019.

“I would’ve gone back earlier, but everything with COVID, and flying with a baby just makes things a little bit more difficult,” Stoelting said. “I actually played in the Florida Open three weeks ago as a test event just to see if even I was OK mentally, physically being away from my son while I played. I finished third there, so I was like, 'All right!' Literally, the next day I signed up for Arkansas.”

Stacy Lewis birdied the last two holes for a 66. The former University of Arkansas player won the 2014 event at Pinnacle. She won the Ladies Scottish Open two weeks ago for her 13th LPGA Tour title and first since the birth of daughter Chesnee in October 2018.

“Every opportunity I get to play right now is special because I feel like I’m playing well,” Lewis said. “Just need rest is kind of the key. But I love it here. I love this t golf course. It’s unfortunate we don’t have the fans this year, but it’s still special being here.”

Nordqvist, the 33-year-old Swede with two major titles and six other LPGA Tour victories, also opened with a 5-under 30 on the back nine in a bogey-free round.

Lee is making her sixth start of the season and her career. She broke 70 for the first time on the tour after missing the cuts in her previous five events in the coronavirus- interrupted season.

Sei Young Kim was a stroke back with Katherine Kirk, Austin Ernst, Stephanie Meadow, Mina Harigae and Maria Fernanda Torres, Angela Stanford, Lizette Salas, Dana Finkelstein and Jing Yan joined Lewis at 66. Nelly Korda and 2013 winner Inbee Park topped the group at 67.

Juli Inkster, the 60-year-old Hall of Famer, had a 69 in her first event of the year. She had a triple-bogey 7 on the par-4 12th, her third hole of the day.

Race to CME Globe leader Danielle Kang also shot 69.

Alexa Pano, the 16-year-old Florida amateur playing on a sponsor exemption, had a 72.

Coming off the Women’s British Open last week, the tour is week next week before the major ANA Inspiration in California.

European Tour

South African golfer Justin Walters shot 1-under 71 to stay in the lead after the second round of the U.K. Championship on the European Tour .

On a rainy day at The Belfry, Walters was unable to follow up his 64 in the opening round and saw his lead cut from three strokes to one.

An impressive par save on the last hole moved him to 9 under overall, just ahead of Benjamin Hebert of France (69). Paul Waring of England was a shot further back after a 67.

Two more Englishmen, Marcus Armitage (68) and Matthew Jordan (69), were at 6 under alongside Ryan Fox of New Zealand (67) and Bernd Wiesberger of Austria (71).