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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – No one was sure what to expect from the opening round of the Wells Fargo Championship, and sure enough, there were a few surprises.
They just didn't have anything to do with the greens, which were rugged but otherwise reasonable.
Who would have guessed Padraig Harrington would switch to a belly putter? The Irishman, and Royal & Ancient ambassador, is opposed to the anchored stroke and still believes it should be banned for the good of the game — but he's willing to use it while it's still legal for the good of HIS game, which is not very good. He shot 80.
Then there were a pair of long shots in a logjam atop the leaderboard.
One of them was rookie Derek Ernst, who was driving to Georgia to play a Web.com Tour event when he received a phone call that he was in as the fourth alternate. He dropped off one rental car, picked up another to drive to Charlotte and made eight birdies in his round of 5-under 67. The other was Nate Smith, who had to go through Monday qualifying, then got plenty of grief when a prank led to him playing out of a golf bag that some 60 players signed.
Also on the list of surprises — Rory McIlroy atop the leaderboard after any round for the first time this year.
"I've seen my game progress week by week, which is a good thing," McIlroy said. "There are still 54 holes to play, but it's a nice start here this week."
McIlroy made one small tweak to his swing with coach Michael Bannon since the Masters, which was to stabilize his hips during the swing so that his right leg didn't collapse as much. The progress showed in the way he drove the ball — McIlroy missed only three fairways, important in the soft conditions — and scored. His 8-foot birdie putt that wobbled into the cup on the 18th gave him a share of the lead. And his 67 was the first time he broke par in the opening round all year.
"Now that I feel like I'm swinging it well, this is the sort of golf I expect to play," McIlroy said.
Nick Watney, Ryan Moore, Robert Garrigus and Ernst shot 67 in the morning. Daniel Summerhays and Smith joined McIlroy by posting their 67s in the afternoon.
Phil Mickelson and Lucas Glover were in a large group at 68, with 19-year-old Jordan Spieth in another big group at 69.
The talk going into the Wells Fargo Championship was the shape of the greens. Two of the putting surfaces had to be entirely replaced by sod just a week ago — the 10th green had to be sodded twice — and the other greens were ragged. Some had ugly patches of brown where there was no grass.
But they weren't as bad as players feared, and there wasn't much public grumbling, mainly because Quail Hollow has a history of being in pristine shape and players seemed willing to accept this is an exceptionally bad year.
"It was fine," Boo Weekley said after his 68. "First off, they were pretty smooth. It ain't 100 percent, but I mean they're good enough to play golf on."
The bigger problem was cool, soft conditions that made Quail Hollow seem longer than usual. That's why McIlroy, the 2010 winner, was so pleased with missing only three fairways. The greens weren't smooth, but they were soft enough that getting into position off the tee was pivotal in setting up birdie chances.
"They're not the best greens that we've ever putted on, but they're certainly not the worst, either," McIlroy said. "The ball still rolls pretty well on them. As long as you give yourself chances for birdies, that's all you can ask. ... If you drive the ball well, you can really take advantage of that. And for the most part today, I did drive the ball well."
McIlroy got into the mix quickly with four straight birdies — two of them on the par 5s, a 7-iron to 3 feet on the par-3 sixth hole, and a big drive on the short, par-4 eighth that left him a flip wedge into about 3 feet. A tee shot that found the rough on the ninth led to bogey, but the world's No. 2 player bounced back with an up-and-down birdie on the par-5 10th and an approach into 8 feet on the 11th for another birdie.
His biggest scare came on the 18th, when McIlroy looked nervously down the left side of the fairway as the ball flirted with the winding creek, barely clearing the water. From there, he hit 8-iron that stopped close to where it landed, and he made an 8-foot putt that bounced more than it rolled.
It's just one round, though it feels like a long way from a few months ago. The start to the season for McIlroy was marked by a missed cut, a first-round loss in the Match Play Championship, walking out of the Honda Classic from frustration after 27 holes and loads of speculation about his decision to change equipment after last year.
Thursday was another step in the right direction.
"It's big strides because my game wasn't where it should have been at all at the start of the year," McIlroy said. "Got into a couple of bad habits on my swing, and it just took me a little bit of time to get out of them."
Smith wins the award for the strangest golf bag, the product of payback. Seems he had placed a two-way radio in the bag of James Hahn and spoke into it as Hahn tried to figure out where the chatter originated. Hahn got him back, though, finding Smith's new golf bag for the week and posting a message that asked players to sign it for charity. They do that all the time, just not on the bag a player is actually using.
There were some 60 autographs on the bag.
"A little embarrassing when you're playing as a Monday qualifier," Smith said. "You don't want people to be making fun of you. But I kind of had it coming from James, so it's all in good fun. I'll be getting him back. So don't you worry about that."