Rory McIlroy hits dad on leg in spluttering start in Masters
What next for Rory McIlroy? A fortnight ago, the struggling Northern Irishman saw a wayward tee shot in Texas end up in a swimming pool. While not exactly a miscue on this occasion in an attempt to try and bend one around trees, he hit his dad Gerry on the back of the leg in the first round of the 85th Masters.
No physical damage was done, but another spluttering display left McIlroy looking deflated after day one at Augusta National in his seventh attempt to become just the sixth player to complete golf’s career grand slam.
On the evidence of an opening four-over-par 76, it’s very much a case of work in progress for the four-time major winner since adding Pete Cowen, one of the most experienced coaches in the game, to his technical team.
Having earlier dropped three shots in a row from the fifth, McIlroy found watery graves at both the 11th and 13th during his journey through Amen Corner. The 31-year-old has lost his spark and being here for the weekend is now his first priority in order to try and build some much-needed momentum.
“Honestly, I'm quite encouraged with how I hit it on the way in,” he said afterwards. “I hit some loose shots out there, but after hitting the 6-iron in the water on 13, I hit some really good shots coming in, so I'm encouraged by that.
“Going to go to the range here and work on it a little bit more, but it was just one of those days where I wasn't very efficient with my scoring.
“Could have made a couple more birdies, but it's not as if anyone is going really low out there. Do a little bit of practice and hopefully feel a little more comfortable tomorrow, go out there and shoot a good one.”
McIlroy was not alone in finding it tough going on a course that wasted no time in biting back after being made to look pretty much defenceless when Dustin Johnson won with a record-breaking 20-under-par total in soft conditions in November. “This is about as fast as I've seen it,” observed Ian Woosnam, the 1991 winner, at the end of his opening circuit.
He was happy enough with a 76, but no-one had been expecting Lee Westwood to go round in two shots more than that on the back of his encouraging recent form, having finished runner-up in both the Arnold Palmer Invitational and The Players Championship on the PGA Tour.
When he won in December, Johnson only had four bogeys in 72 holes. His opening circuit this time around contained three bogeys and also a double-bogey, which came at the last. His 74 was a somewhat ragged affair.
“The conditions are definitely different,” said Johnson, the world No 1. "When the greens are firm and fast here, the golf course plays difficult. Then you add the wind in today, it made it play really difficult, I thought.
“I felt like I hit a lot of good shots that didn't end up in good spots, just from misjudging the wind a little bit. I feel like I'm driving it good and putting it good. Just need to dial the irons in a little bit.”
Asked if he was feeling any additional pressure this week, he added: “No. If anything, I'm a little more relaxed out there. Today, it just played tough. I felt like I played pretty well or got it around pretty well.”
Brooks Koepka, who is playing with a dislocated right knee, also opened with a 74 after picking up two late shots. “It was fine. I just didn't play good,” said the four-time major winner of his knee, which has been fitted with an internal brace.
“It's tired right now, I'm not going to lie. But just got to play better. I just take it one day at a time. There's nothing I can do. It's not getting any worse, it's only getting better each day with everything we do. It feels a hell of a lot better than it did a week ago, put it that way.”
Left-hander Brian Harman finished strongly, picking up three shots in the last six holes, to open promisingly with a 68, the same score posted by Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama.
“The golf course is playing very difficult,” said Harman, a two-time PGA Tour winner who is making just his third appearance in this event at the age of 34. “It's so hard to read the wind down around Amen Corner. If you've got an in between number, it's easy to be uncommitted.”
Patrick Reed, the 2018 winner, was on course to match Harman’s effort before dropping a shot at the last, leaving him alongside fellow Americans Webb Simpson and Will Zalatoris, as well as South African Christiaan Bezuidenhout.
Henrik Stenson, the 2016 Open champion, was pleased with his day’s work, having shrugged off a run of six straight cuts coming into this event to open with a 73. He was on course for better before a pulled tee shot led to a double-bogey at the 16th, but the big Swede had no complaints.
“That was hard work,” said Stenson, who tied for fifth in 2018 but, other than that, has never managed to fire on all cylinders around here. “I think I made 11 up and downs in total, including the three birdies on the par 5s. So, it was a lot of scrambling out there.
“I'm struggling with my game, but I put a good effort in. I was fighting hard for every shot. It's a golf course that's playing pretty tricky and “I've got to give myself a big pat on the back for the fighting effort.
“I was just trying to keep it together and not bring any big numbers in, and I managed to do that for 17 holes at least. So we'll live to fight another day.”