Published March 01, 2012
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Davis Love III looked more like a player than a Ryder Cup captain Thursday at the Honda Classic.
Love made a hole-in-one on the 197-yard fifth hole and tied the course record at PGA National with a 6-under 64, giving him a two-shot lead among the early starters who took advantage of soft and relatively calm conditions.
Rory McIlroy was in the group at 66, needing a win this week to go to No. 1 in the world.
Love, 47, has been around long enough to know that one round is nothing more than a good start, and he was happy to have that after a 5-iron to 18 feet for birdie on the 17th and a bunker shot to tap-in range for birdie on the par-5 18th.
He hasn't won since Disney at the end of 2008, and the last time he was atop the leaderboard after one round was at Bay Hill in 2010.
"If I had not birdied the last two holes, it still would have been a good start," Love said. "It's fun to tie the course record. And it's fun to shoot low scores."
Nine other players have shot 64 at PGA National, the most recent Graeme McDowell a year ago.
Tiger Woods was among the late starters as the wind slightly increased. He was even par at the turn.
McIlroy also got off to a good start, only this held much more promise.
The 22-year-old from Northern Ireland is looking like the world's best player with each tournament he plays. He won an unofficial event in Shanghai in October, the Hong Kong Open a week later and only once has finished outside the top 10 since the PGA Championship.
A week ago, he lost in the final of the Match Play Championship.
As even more attention shifts to the U.S. Open champion, McIlroy seems to embrace it. He made his opening round at PGA National look easy, rarely putting pressure on any part of his game.
He birdied the last two holes of the back nine, made the turn and picked up another birdie on the par-4 second by smartly playing short of the bunkers and firing his approach into a breeze to about 18 feet from a back pin. His final birdie came on the par-3 seventh, when caddie J.P. Fitzgerald talked him into a hard 6-iron that stopped 12 feet short of the cup.
"It was pretty stress-free out there," McIlroy said. "I hit quite a few fairways and a lot of greens and gave myself a lot of chances, and that's sort of what you need to do around this golf course."
Love opened with four pars until he reached the par-5 fifth, where he hit a hard 5-iron that drew gently toward the flag, and the next thing he heard was wild cheering from around the green.
"I knew when we were on the range this morning that early scores were going to be better, and you'd better get off to a good start," Love said. "I was parring along there, had not made a birdie yet then all of a sudden was 2 under. So that was a big boost."
It helped that PGA National was more benign than usual.
Because of rain Wednesday and the possibility of some afternoon showers, players were able to lift, clean and place their golf balls in the fairway, which always helps. The greens were smooth in the morning, another advantage. And there wasn't much wind.
Ryan Palmer, Justin Rose, Martin Flores and Dicky Pride, whose top 10 in Mexico last week got him into the Honda Classic, joined McIlroy at 66. PGA champion Keegan Bradley was among those at 67.
Bradley played with McIlroy and Phoenix Open winner Kyle Stanley. Their games are so similar that after their opening tee shots at No. 10, their tee shots landed in a line next to each other, separated by no more than five paces.
Stanley struggled to a 75, brought on by three consecutive three-putts early in the round.
Bradley and McIlroy surged ahead, and Bradley looked forward to more occasions like that.
"I love playing with Rory for a lot of reasons," he said. "We're both very competitive, and I like the kid. He's just a good kid, a good Irish kid."
Bradley, 25, was reminded that the kid was only three years younger.
But there seems to be an appreciation that McIlroy soon could be the guy against whom players measure themselves. Bradley was a two-time winner last year as a rookie, and his work on the short game — particularly his chipping — appears to be paying off. There were several holes where Bradley turned potential trouble into an easy par.
"There's nothing more in the game of golf that makes me feel good than chipping up close," he said. "It's better than making a 50-foot bomb or hitting a 300-yard drive. It's been the different between being in the middle of the pack and contending."
McIlroy is contending just about every time he plays, and this is an important stretch. He has two tournaments left before he takes his three-week break to prepare for the Masters.