- Image 1 of 2
- Image 2 of 2
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Rory McIlroy is playing so well that he can easily manage a smile even on the bad days.
One of those occasions came Thursday on his way to the 15th tee at the Honda Classic. He was playing alongside Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka, the star group at PGA National with scores that sure didn't resemble it.
Johnson, a contender at Pebble Beach and Riviera, already was 8-over par. Koepka, the Phoenix Open champion, was 5-over par. McIlroy, who missed going out-of-bounds on the previous hole by a mere 18 inches and still made bogey, also was at 5-over par.
"Walking from 14 green to 15 tee, I said to Brooks, 'Let's just make a couple birdies on the way in, try and get something out of it,'" McIlroy said. "Luckily, I was sort of able to do that. But it was tough. When nothing is going your way and you don't really have anything to feed off, you don't see many good shots and guys ... we're all struggling. It was a grind out there. We'll all go home and put our feet up and get ready for tomorrow."
McIlroy got a rude welcome to his first competition of the year in America. His first shot was out of play and led to double bogey. A birdie-birdie finish enabled him to salvage a 3-over 73, his highest opening-round score to par in seven months. Then again, that's a span of only nine tournaments.
And he was in the middle of the pack on this wind-blown day, still only eight shots behind Jim Herman.
The relentless wind had gusts approaching 35 mph. And with the amount of water hazards at PGA National, the scoring was tough. Only 19 players broke par. Seventeen players had a nine-hole score of 40 or higher. Only three holes — the two par 5s and No. 9, which played downwind — had an average score under par.
Herman didn't mind the wind, though he moved to south Florida more than a decade ago and was surprised earlier in the week when there was hardly any wind at all. Even with a 65, it still wasn't easy. He twice saved par from the fairway and rolled in a 35-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole.
"I don't mind it blowing," Herman said. "I feel like I can control the golf ball pretty well with my iron game. So yeah, it was OK that the wind was blowing."
Brendan Steele pitched in from about 35 yards to save bogey on the 14th hole, a key moment in his round of 66. Martin Flores, Kapalua winner Patrick Reed and Padraig Harrington were at 67. U.S. Open champion Martin Kaymer was among those at 68.
Harrington would seem to feel at home in these conditions. On a day when the gusts were relentless, they still would be considered a wee breeze in Ireland. Except that the Irishman has spent the last four weeks in gorgeous, calm weather on the West Coast.
"If I had come from Ireland, I probably would be thinking it was a nice day," Harrington said. "But having played the last four weeks over here, even I was struggling and questioning and doubting myself out there. I found it very difficult."
McIlroy found that out immediately.
Even starting on the easier first hole, the wind fooled him and took his 2-iron far to the right and toward the driving range. Just like that, he was 2 over.
He found the water left of the green on the par-3 fifth hole for another double bogey, and came a foot within big trouble on the 14th. His tee shot sent left toward the houses and stopped about 18 inches from the out-of-bounds stakes. He made bogey to fall to 5 over with four holes remaining.
Reed had the best score of the afternoon wave, when the wind was at its strongest.
"When I hit 6-iron normally 200 yards and I'm pulling 6-iron from 170, it's tough," Reed said. "The main thing was just to stay in my golf swing and just be comfortable and try to be confident that's the club to hit from those distances. I feel like I did a good job."
Phil Mickelson opened with a 71 and was relatively pleased, though that was hard work. He hit into water hazards three times on the front nine.
"I really enjoyed the challenge of the day," Mickelson said. "It's fun to be back out competing, and I had a good day with the putter."
McIlroy didn't leave without finding one other positive note.
"I shot better today than I did the previous time I played here, so it's a little bit of an accomplishment," he said.
That would be the final round last year, when he closed with a 74. And lost in a playoff.