News & Opinion

McIlroy eases into form at Firestone

AKRON, Ohio – Dustin Johnson walked over and stood next to the tented podium where Rory McIlroy was finishing his official post-round interview with reporters Thursday. 

Somebody noticed Johnson and said, “Is there one more question?”

Heads turned and looked at Johnson, who paused for a second, stone-faced, and then grinned.

“Yeah, I was gonna ask a question, but I couldn’t think of one,” he said.

There was laughter, none harder than McIlroy’s. When the frivolity subsided, Johnson took his shot.

“Rory, how was your round today?” he asked in his best official-dom voice.

A smiling McIlroy answered in a similar pretend-important tone.

“D.J., my round was good. It could have been a little better, but I holed some good putts, had some good upanddowns. My wedge play was a little off; I'm going to go work on that. I might need to borrow your TrackMan. How was your round?”

“About the same,” Johnson replied in his normal dead-pan tone. 

There was more laughter. McIlroy left the makeshift stage, and Johnson stepped to the microphone.

Everyone is in a good mood this week. It was a pretty summer day, Firestone Country Club was in perfect condition, as usual, and the WGC Bridgestone Invitational is a low-pressure event, at least until Sunday.

“There’s no cut to make here,” McIlroy said. “It’s pretty easy.”

He didn’t mean that Firestone is easy, just that it’ll be different next week at the PGA Championship when they’re playing for history, not just for cash. With the PGA almost here, McIlroy was among the top players relieved to see that they are at least close to being on top of their games.

Belgium’s Thomas Pieters posted 5-under 65 to lead by one over Scotland’s Russell Knox (scores: http://bit.ly/1j3khNH). McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, bogeyed his final hole to shoot 67 and share third with Americans Jordan Spieth, Bubba Watson and Kevin Kisner, Spain’s Jon Rahm and England’s Ross Fisher. Johnson shot 68. 

With his first-round play, McIlroy should settle the murmurs about his recent caddie change. He and long-time bagman J.P. Fitzgerald split after nine years, following the British Open two weeks ago at Royal Birkdale. McIlroy said Wednesday that sometimes you have to sacrifice a professional relationship to preserve a personal relationship and that even though he knew he was the one hitting the errant shots and the poor putts, he found himself starting to blame the caddie. So, he made a change.

Caddies play a role, no doubt, but this swap always was going to be much ado about nothing. McIlroy has won four majors, and he could win four more with a pull cart instead of a caddie, if he were allowed. McIlroy’s new caddie is Harry Diamond, and his boss summarized his debut round as “awesome.”

Diamond, who has been one of McIlroy’s best friends since they grew up together in Holywood, near Belfast, will work this week and next. McIlroy said he wouldn’t call it an audition but conceded that he doesn’t know his next move. 

McIlroy’s score spoke for itself. It was also a good sign because in most of his major victories, he got off to good starts. At the recent Open at Birkdale, he started terribly, 5 over through six holes, and played his way back into semi-contention on Sunday.

Next week’s venue also is a good sign for McIlroy. He already won the regular PGA Tour stop at Quail Hollow, firing a final-round 62 in 2010, and won again there in 2015.

“There were a couple of venues I earmarked as places that I had a really good chance of winning,” he said. “There was St. Andrews in ’15, which went really well for me.”

He paused for the anticipated laughter; he missed that Open due to an ankle injury suffered in a soccer kickaround with friends.

“And Quail Hollow this year,” he said. “I made sure I didn’t play any football [soccer] leading up to next week.”

Some changes were made to Quail Hollow, and McIlroy got a sneak peek at them last summer when he attended a Charlotte-area wedding and inspected the revised course. McIlroy’s last major title was the 2014 PGA Championship, which seems like a long time ago.

“It’s not going to be too much different,” McIlroy said of Quail Hollow. “It’s the same golf course, the same sort of shots you need to hit. It’s been on my mind for a while. This is one that I’ve got a good chance at.”

Any other questions?

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle