CHARLOTTE, N.C. – For all the talk about the greens, Rory McIlroy’s most important club was his driver Thursday in the Wells Fargo Championship.
McIlroy kept the ball in play at Quail Hollow and gave himself plenty of birdie chances on a cloudy, soft afternoon. He ran off six birdies in a seven-hole stretch around the turn and finished with an 8-foot birdie putt for a 5-under 67 to share the lead with six other players.
It was the first time this year McIlroy has been atop the leaderboard after any round, and the first time he broke par in the opening round.
“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 PGA Tour rookie Derek Ernst shot 67 in the morning. Daniel Summerhays and Nate Smith, a Monday qualifier, 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 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.”
One tweak he made after the Masters with swing coach Michael Bannon was to keep his hips more stable.
Garrigus missed only two greens and figures he should be have been twice as much under par as he was.
“I absolutely striped it all day,” Garrigus said. “I could have shot 10 or 11 under today if I had made some putts. I was hitting it really close all day. I didn’t get frustrated. I just kept hitting it. I’m very confident right now and hitting it really well.”
Summerhays and Smith each reached 6 under until bogeys on the 17th hole. Smith missed a 5-foot par putt, and immediately tapped down a section of the green on the line of his putt. That was a typical reaction on this day, and probably won’t change much during the week.
The hole locations were in different spots than players typically see, as officials looked for sections of the green that had the lushest grass to cut the holes. The idea was to at least keep the bumps to a minimum in a 4-foot radius around the hole.
Smith was the biggest surprise, mainly because he had to qualify for the tournament on Monday. He also had the most unusual golf bag. Smith played a prank earlier in the week on James Hahn, who returned the favor. Hahn posted a message on the bag in the locker room asking players to sign it for charity. They do that all the time, though it’s not usually the bag a player uses in the tournament.
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.”