RORY McILROY’S new-found confidence from his first win in 18 months evaporated — as he equalled his worst round at any USPGA Championship.
McIlroy’s three-over-par 75 in the first round at Kiawah Island was the same score he managed in the second round at this course nine years ago.
The saving grace back then was the fact he went on to win by an incredible eight shots.
But there was a huge difference between that effort and this one.
The 75 in 2012 came in fierce winds that sent the scores rocketing for most of the field.
The average score that day was 78, so McIlroy was able to point to the fact he had picked up three shots on the rest.
But the weather was a lot kinder this time — and Kiawah was not playing anywhere near as tough as it usually does.
And the most disappointing aspect of McIlroy’s lacklustre performance was the fact that his shoulders seemed to slump as soon as things started going against him.
Something we have seen too many times before.
It would have been nice to see him show the same fight as playing partner Brooks Koepka.
Especially as the Northern Ireland star was buzzing when he arrived in South Carolina — after winning the Wells Fargo Championship by two shots on his last start.
American star Koepka — like McIlroy a double USPGA champion — opened with a double-bogey six that had pundits questioning whether he should even have turned up after being plagued by knee problems recently.
But he showed great resilience, playing the remaining 17 in five under par — and at three under he entered the clubhouse with a share of the early lead.
Bryson DeChambeau also dug deep to bounce back from a horror run of four bogeys in a row early in his round to salvage a level-par 72.
Compared to his big-name rivals, there were precious few hints that McIlroy had what it took to turn the tide yesterday.
He started on the tenth tee, tackling the far more difficult back nine first.
And he could hardly have made a worse start, hooking his opening drive far right into the water.
The four-time Major champion had to drop his ball on a cart path and, after dumping his third shot into a bunker, he did well to limit the damage to just a bogey.
But a 348-yard drive on the par-five 11th meant he was left with only a seven iron for his second shot — and a two putt from just inside 17 feet gave him a bounce-back birdie.
It could have been better, his eagle putt looked in all the way — but it lipped out despite grabbing a big chunk of the hole.
Then he moved to one under by sinking an 18-footer for his second birdie on the 12th, only to find more trouble on the monster 608-yard 16th hole. McIlroy found the short stuff off the tee.
But he sent his second shot hurtling into an embedded lie in the sand flanking practically every fairway at Kiawah Island.
That led to a bogey six, and after making the turn the former world No 1 carded the same number on both par fives on the front nine, as his erratic driving continued to cost him dearly.
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McIlroy also dropped a shot on the first, one of the easier holes on the Ocean Course.
And even though he managed to rebound from a three-putt bogey on the par-three fifth with a birdie at the next, the swagger that was back in his stride during his win at Quail Hollow two weeks ago was replaced by an all-too-familiar slouch.
McIlroy now desperately needs to find some positive energy — and a bit more game — to have any chance of clawing his way back into this championship.
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