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    Tuesday, July 23, 2024

    McIlroy showing major form with bogey-free 65 to share US Open lead with Cantlay

    Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, walks to the green on the 18th hole during the first round of the U.S. Open golf tournament Thursday, June 13, 2024, in Pinehurst, N.C. (AP Photo/Matt York)

    Pinehurst, N.C. — Rory McIlroy had his first bogey-free round in a major since his last time winning one 10 years ago, a 5-under 65 that gave him a share of the lead with nemesis Patrick Cantlay on Thursday in the U.S. Open.

    McIlroy had one of two clean cards, a rarity for Pinehurst No. 2. He capped off his round with a 20-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole, where he was taking his fourth step toward the cup when it dropped and he waved to the crowd in the double-deck grandstands.

    That was about the only thing that didn't go as planned for McIlroy.

    “I wasn't showing off. I thought I left it short," McIlroy said. “But it got up there, it was nice, and a great way to finish. The way I played today, the way I hit the ball, the way I managed myself, I felt like that score was pretty deserved.”

    Cantlay played in the morning beneath a full sun, holing out from a bunker for birdie on his second hole and making a pair of birdie putts in the 20-foot range in an otherwise tidy round marred by only one bogey.

    Pinehurst No. 2 was both playable and punishing, yielding more than a dozen scores under par. Masters champion Scottie Scheffler did not have one of them. The world's No. 1 player, coming off his fifth win of the year at the Memorial, was a picture of frustration — clean-shaven and with a fresh haircut — as he didn't have his usual control off the tee.

    He still managed a 71 and was very much in the game.

    Tiger Woods couldn't say the same. After a good start, he had five bogeys in a seven-hole stretch around the turn for a 74, his 12th consecutive round in the majors without breaking par.

    McIlroy was in control from the start, hitting 6-iron to 7 feet at the 528-yard fourth hole — the toughest par 4 on the course — for birdie, and then chipping in from the front of the green on the next hole.

    He has the advantage of towering iron shots that land softly, and they were usually pin-high and away from the domed edges of the Donald Ross greens that cause so much trouble.

    McIlroy has won majors the last three times he has started with a bogey-free round — at Hoylake in the 2014 British Open, at Kiawah Island in the 2012 PGA Championship and at Congressional in the 2011 U.S. Open.

    “Getting off to a good start is important to try to keep yourself up there, because you have to give yourself as big of a cushion as possible, knowing what is lurking around the corner,” McIlroy said.

    Ludvig Aberg, in his U.S. Open debut, hit his tee shot to 6 feet on the scary par-3 ninth hole for birdie and a 66. Every major is something new for the rising star from Sweden, who only turned pro a year ago. He was runner-up in the Masters.

    Bryson DeChambeau, the runner-up at Valhalla in the PGA Championship last month, and Matthieu Pavon of France were at 67.

    Sergio Garcia had the other bogey-free round — 17 pars and a birdie — in his 25th consecutive time playing the U.S. Open. He also played in the morning and didn't seem particularly alarmed by Cantlay's 65. That matches the low opening round in four U.S. Opens at Pinehurst No. 2.

    “There’s always going to be someone that hits the ball great, everything goes his way, makes a couple of bombs, and you can shoot it,” Garcia said. “You might see someone shooting another 66 or 65 or something like that. I think as the course gets even firmer, even faster, a tiny bit of breeze comes up here and there, it’s going to be difficult to shoot those kind of scores.”

    It shouldn't be a surprise to see Cantlay contending given he has no real weakness in his game, except for his performance in the majors. He has only four top 10s in his 26 major starts since returning from a serious back injury in 2017, and only one real chance at winning one.

    McIlroy and Cantlay never saw eye-to-eye during their time on the PGA Tour board as it tried to negotiate an agreement with the Saudi-backers of LIV Golf, and McIlroy was on the losing in a tense fourballs match in Rome last fall when Cantlay buried a 45-foot putt at the end.

    Cantlay watched his best friend in golf — Xander Schauffele, who opened with a 70 — finally win a major last month. His start was enough to at least wonder if his time is coming next.

    “I've been working really hard on my game,” Cantlay said. “And usually when you make just a couple changes and you're working really hard, it's just a matter of time.”

    Cantlay isn't known to be verbose on many subjects, particularly when it comes to his performance in golf's most important championships. He also has rejected notions that his time on the PGA Tour board during the divide with LIV Golf has been a distraction.

    Whatever the case, this was a good day of work.

    But it was still a test, and some of the scores would indicate that. Viktor Hovland had to make a tough par at the end for 78. Justin Thomas had a 77 and Will Zalatoris, who typically thrives in the majors, was at 75. Dustin Johnson joined the group at 74.

    Five-time major champion Brooks Koepka was sailing along and dropped a 35-foot birdie putt for birdie on the par-5 10th to reach 3 under in the morning. He had three bogeys coming in and had to settle for a 70.

    Colin Morikawa, who has played in the final group at the first two majors of the year, hit a decent bunker shot on the par-3 ninth that rolled by the cup 2 feet and then took a slope and stopped rolling 80 feet away, leading to double bogey. He took another double bogey on the par-3 15th and still managed a 70 by holing a bunker shot on the par-3 17th for birdie and finishing with a 30-foot birdie putt on the 18th.

    “Hit two poor shots and one bad bunker shot. It wasn’t that bad on 9,” he said. “But other than that, I felt like I played pretty good. Very, very happy I got out with even par after today.”

    Patrick Cantlay waves after making a putt on the ninth hole during the first round of the U.S. Open golf tournament Thursday, June 13, 2024, in Pinehurst, N.C. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II )
    Patrick Cantlay hits from the bunker on the 16th hole during the first round of the U.S. Open golf tournament Thursday, June 13, 2024, in Pinehurst, N.C. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)
    Bryson DeChambeau reacts after missing a putt on the second hole during the first round of the U.S. Open golf tournament Thursday, June 13, 2024, in Pinehurst, N.C. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
    Tiger Woods hits from the bunker on the fourth hole during the first round of the U.S. Open golf tournament Thursday, June 13, 2024, in Pinehurst, N.C. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
    Tiger Woods watches his tee shot on the fifth hole during the first round of the U.S. Open golf tournament Thursday, June 13, 2024, in Pinehurst, N.C. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
    Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, and Scottie Scheffler finish their first round of the U.S. Open golf tournament Thursday, June 13, 2024, in Pinehurst, N.C. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

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