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Woeful Woods wilts as Rory battles injury

ESPN staff
August 11, 2011 « What They Said | Chartbeat test »
Rory McIlroy grimaces in pain after striking a tree root © PA Photos
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Tiger Woods' US PGA Championship challenge looks over, with the 14-time major winner enduring a torrid opening round at Atlanta Athletic Club, but his problems paled into insignificance compared with Rory McIlroy who was forced to battle through the pain of a wrist injury.

McIlroy came into the tournament well fancied to back up his win at the US Open and it is on account of his brilliance that he remains in contention at level-par - as he played for the best part of 16 holes with an injury.

McIlroy's problems started with a poor tee shot on the third that left his ball sat directly behind a tree root. Instead of chipping out sideways, which seemed the only sensible option, he attempted to thrash the ball forward and it backfired as his iron thumped into the root, bending the club in the process, and he immediately winced in pain. He completed the hole after a delay, making bogey, but he was clearly in trouble.

On the fourth tee he hit a five-iron and upon impact he dropped the club in real pain. Ice and gel packs were applied but he was in real discomfort and was unable to put the tee in the ground with his injured right hand on the fifth tee. He got his drive away but recoiled in pain and was advised by playing partner Darren Clarke to head in for treatment.

McIlroy's fighting spirit was in evidence as he continued and still managed to make a birdie on five. He received lengthy treatment from the physio on the sixth fairway and was given anti-inflammatories. He still looked restricted, but was able to fire the ball to 35 feet and rolled in a brilliant birdie to get to one-under.

At the ninth he had his wrist and hand taped and it seemed to impact on his feel as the ball started to fly wildly around the course, although he looked more comfortable with his injury.

McIlroy made an amazing par at 10 after hitting a wide off the tee. He had no way of getting back onto the 10th fairway, so had to chip sideways onto the adjoining fairway. Completely blocked out, he fired a shot high over the trees and somehow found the putting surface. Faced with a slick downhill 20-footer, McIlroy showed nerves of steel to stroke the ball in for one of the more memorable pars that will be made this week.

The injury was never far from the surface and he found trouble off the tee on 12, with his ball finding a horrible lie in the trees. The physio who was following him shook his head to McIlroy when seeing the lie, but the world No. 4 elected to bunt the ball forward and once again he produced a moment of brilliance as a fine approach led to a further birdie.

A mix of bogeys and birdies coming home resulted in McIlroy signing for a level-par 70, but the positive to take from the round was that the pain appeared to ease and it is hoped that some extensive physio will get him in shape to compete on Friday.

Woods, making only his second appearance since May, came into the final major of the year in bullish mood and he made a superb start. He birdied three of his first five holes and at one stage sat atop the leaderboard, but his round unravelled at the brutal 15th, his sixth, and he ended up signing for a 77 - his highest opening round in a major championship.

Woods is now down at No. 30 in the world, but it seems likely that he has not yet bottomed out judged on the inconsistent nature of his play. An excellent tee shot on the first raised hope that he had ironed out the demons in his swing and it set up a birdie. But the warning signs were in evidence on the par-five 12th as he pulled out driver for the first time and sent the ball way to the right. It is testament to his natural ability that he was able to thump a fairway wood into the greenside bunker and a fine up and down from the sand yielded a birdie.

The driver came out again on 14 and split the fairway, leading to a superb approach and confident birdie putt. After five holes he was topping the leaderboard, but he had to endure a long wait as the field bottlenecked at the monstrous par-three 15th. The delay clearly did not help Woods as his tee shot came up short and found water. A failure to get up and down saw him drop two shots to par and it appeared to drain all the confidence from the former world No. 1.

Tiger Woods shows his frustration after a poor shot © PA Photos
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An error off the tee on 16 led to a bogey and another missed fairway on 18 resulted in a second double bogey of the round. There are 88 bunkers on the Highlands course at the Atlanta Athletic Club and although Woods did not find them all, he saw an awful ot of sand - mainly thanks to wayward tee shots.

Woods was last in terms of fairways hit at the previous week's WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and he began the front nine with a pair of bogeys, with the tee shot again the problem. A poor tee shot on 15 put him in trouble in a bunker and he tugged his second into the water. A failure to scramble forced him to sign for a third double bogey of the round.

He visited two more bunkers on his final hole to make bogey and a seven-over 77 leaves him facing an uphill battle to avoid missing the cut at the US PGA for the first time in his career.

There has not been a US winner at a major since Phil Mickelson at the 2010 Masters. With Woods toiling and Mickelson off the pace at one-over, it was left to Steve Stricker to step up to the plate and he did that superbly with a flawless round of 63. Atlanta Athletic Club has some brutal holes but Stricker, despite not being the longest off the tee, negotiated the course with aplomb to fire himself to the top of the leaderboard. No player has carded a 62 in major history. Stricker had a putt at the last to reach that landmark but the effort just shaved the hole to leave him at seven-under.

Jerry Kelly is Stricker's nearest pursuer, with the veteran making his way to five-under on the back of some excellent play off the tee, while Shaun Micheel, who has had a torrid season, found some form to sit one further back after a 66.

There's a wave of young guns ready to keep Woods in the background and Matteo Manassero is one such player. The Italian has looked unfazed by the pressures of playing on the biggest stage and he plotted his way round in fine style to card a two-under 68, while last week's winner Adam Scott bogeyed the final two holes of his round to drop back to one-under.

It's not just the young guns who caught the eye, as 2012 US Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III put Woods in the shade - comfortably winning his group with a two-under 68. Love III has insisted he will not pick himself, but it may be a different story if he qualifies for the US team by right.

The current world No. 1 Luke Donald had a frustrating day with his usually reliable driver, but he was able to get the ball round in 70 strokes to sit in the pack at level par, while Brian Davis rescued a bogey on the last despite a trip to the water to get round in 69.

Lee Westwood struggled with the putter but managed to get round in 71 and fared far better than Open champion Darren Clarke who looked out of sorts in his round of 78.

Ryo Ishikawa had a round to forget. The Japanese sensation, who is donating all his 2011 winnings to the Japanese relief fund, was taken ill on the eve of the tournament and to his credit he played the entire round, but he could get nothing going and signed for a 15-over 85.

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