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Rory McIlroy turns in strong start in Memphis

Rory McIlroy came to Tennessee to compete and hone his game into shape before defending his U.S. Open title next week. Now he has put himself into position to do something he hasn't done in a month.

Play on the weekend.

McIlroy shot a 2-under 68 Thursday in the opening round of the St. Jude Classic, putting him two strokes behind leaders Jeff Maggert and John Merrick. It's his lowest opening round since he shot a 66 in March on his way to winning The Honda Classic. If he can follow that up Friday, he should keep playing after missing three straight cuts including at Memorial last week.

"I think it's great just to get another competitive round," McIlroy said. "You want to feel like I played pretty well. I feel like it could've been much better. That set me up hopefully a good few days, and it would be great to get myself into contention at this tournament and give me a lot of confidence going into next week."

He couldn't have been grouped with much better playing partners for the first two rounds in an all-Irish threesome. McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champ, are from Northern Ireland, and Padraig Harrington from Ireland.

McIlroy needed only 25 putts as he carded four birdies with two bogeys, including a disappointing approach shot into the water greenside on the par-5 No. 3. But the man who spent last weekend working on his game at The Olympic Club in San Francisco to prepare for the U.S. Open said he really felt comfortable driving the ball at the TPC Southwind course.

"That's something I've been working on the last couple weeks so that's coming around," said McIlroy, who hit six of 14 fairways Thursday. "As long as I can get the ball in the fairway, that gives me the opportunity to get it close to the pin and I'm pleased with that point."

S.Y. Noh, Arjun Atwal, Jeff Overton and J.J. Henry were a stroke back.

McIlroy was tied in a group that included Harrington, Y.E. Yang and John Daly.

Golfers are used to playing through wind and muggy heat in Memphis. A front that kept the temperature a very comfortable 82 Thursday brought winds in from the north, and that created challenges most of the day when many expected good scoring conditions.

"It's gusting a bit, but it's definitely from an unusual direction," Harrington said.

"And anybody who has played over the past number of years, it's playing a different golf course. On 9 there, I'm hitting driver off the tee. I normally hit 5-wood off the tee. There's a lot of holes to have changed like that out there. Some are much tougher, and some are a little easier."

Maggert won on this course in 2006. He took advantage of teeing off in the first group with calm conditions for the first seven holes, and finished with four birdies, an eagle and two bogeys. Merrick matched his best round of the year with six birdies and two bogeys, the last on No. 18 when his tee shot went into the water to drop him back into a tie for the lead.

"Had a loose shot there on 18, but you know ... can't hit every shot perfect out there," Merrick said. "So, I was really happy with today."

Maggert is playing his 16th event this year after having shoulder surgery last June and earned his way back on tour at the qualifying tournament. He tied for 13th at the Sony Open and fifth in the Humana Challenge in January but has missed nine cuts.

He took a week off after missing the cut at Colonial and came to Memphis, where he won in 2006, even though his mother is recovering from surgery for breast cancer in Houston.

Maggert was at 6 under when he bogeyed Nos. 5 and 8 to fall back. He wasn't happy with his bogey at No. 8 after his ball on the par 3 stuck in mud in the fairway 48 yards shy of the pin. He called over two rules officials hoping for relief on a course that had dried out fairly well from heavy rains Monday considering the mud hadn't been there in Wednesday's pro-am.

"I felt like I was justified, but the powers that be thought that I was not," Maggert said.

Merrick tied for 11th here a year ago, and he birdied three of his first four holes and birdied three of five on the back nine, his last taking advantage of hitting with the wind to get on the green at the par 5 in two before two-putting from 60 feet for birdie.

This is just the second time Merrick has had at least a share of the lead after 18 holes. He had a piece of the lead at the 2008 Mayakoba Golf Classic and wound up tied for third. Merrick, whose career best finish was second at the 2009 Bob Hope Classic, said he is looking at the leaderboard but isn't looking ahead.

Divots: Maggert is playing in Memphis for the 13th time in his career. This is the 10th time he has held at least a share of the 18-hole lead, the first since 2007 U.S. Bank in Milwaukee where he finished tied for fifth. ... Harrison Frazar, who won his first career title here a year ago, opened defense of his title with an 80. He's at risk of being only the third defending champ to miss the cut in Memphis since 2000. ... Luke Guthrie, a senior from the University of Illinois, shot a 69 in his tour debut after turning pro Tuesday.