Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy both had their struggles on Thursday. But only one of them could pick their round back up and roar back into contention at the 2014 PGA Championship.
McIlroy carded a five-under 66, overcoming a wild double-bogey fluctuation to stay within a shot of the three-way tie atop the leaderboard. Ryan Palmer, Lee Westwood and Kevin Chappell each went six-under to take the lead on a day where the Valhalla Golf Club was asking players in the field to go low.
More than 70 players finished their day par or better, including Phil Mickelson (-2), Justin Rose (-1) and Adam Scott (E). Not on that list of players was Tiger Woods, who scuffled his way to a three-over 74. The former World No. 1 sits outside the top 100 players after carding only one birdie against four bogeys, ending his round with seven straight pars.
Playing through continued back trouble that caused him to withdraw at last week's Bridgestone Invitational, Woods again seemed at less than 100 percent. His tee shots did not lack for power but were consistently inaccurate and poorly placed. While the field averaged around two-thirds of their tee shots on the fairway, Woods was at only 57 percent.
“It wasn’t very good,” Woods told reporters after his round. “A lot of bad shots and I never got a putt to the hole.”
Gregg Doyel of CBS Sports highlighted the dire straits Woods put himself in heading into the clubhouse:
Tiger has finished his round. So have exactly 100 other golfers. He has beaten 14 of them.— Gregg Doyel (@GreggDoyelCBS) August 7, 2014
McIlroy also saw his day go through wild ups and downs. After pushing his way into contention with a three-under 32 on the front nine, McIlroy looked like he was headed toward a classic meltdown at the start of the back. A wild second shot on the par-five 10th saw him strike the ball the entire way off the golf course. He would double-bogey the hole and instantly follow that up with another over-par score.
Back at even par for the round, McIlroy found himself at a crossroads. Then, in a move that shows the divergence between he and Woods at this point, the Northern Irishman locked, loaded and saved his round.
He started with a sterling shot on No. 12 to set up a birdie. Then again on No. 13. And again on No. 14. And again on No. 15. Four straight birdies turned a round on the precipice of disaster into something that looked on the surface to go without a hitch. Langston Wertz Jr. followed McIlroy's round and was rightfully astounded at how well he recovered:
Rory McIlroy has now made 4 birdies in a row at the #PGAChampionship— Langston Wertz Jr. (@langstonwertzjr) August 7, 2014
McIlroy finished his round out with two pars and a birdie on the par-five 18th. Although he was occasionally errant with his tee shots and approaches, the world No. 1 can thank his putter for keeping him in contention.
He needed only 26 putts to get through the round, getting through the opening nine with only 12 strokes with his short stick. With his game looking in peak form with back-to-back wins, it'll be impossible to keep him away from his second major if the putter keeps working.
Turner Sports PR passed along a quote from analyst Billy Kratzert:
Of course, the guys who sit ahead of McIlroy were no slouches in their own right. Westwood overcame a double-bogey of his own on hole No. 1, while Chappell and Palmer did not need to scramble a bit in their consistent rounds.
Westwood, one of the best players in history without a major championship, carded under-par scores on half of his holes. He nailed more than three-quarters of his greens in regulation and was excellent with his putter, gaining three strokes, per the PGA's official website.
“I played well, hit a lot fairways, putted nicely, which you need to do if you are going to shoot a low score,” Westwood told reporters. “Last week was a big week for me. Going into last week, I felt like I turned the corner. I was starting to swing it a lot better. That’s no good unless you start converting it into low rounds."
Jonathan Wall of the PGA Tour noted Westwood's 65 made a bit of history. Suffice it to say, he's in good company:
Lee Westwood's only the second played to shoot 65 at PGA with a double. Last player to accomplish the feat? Phil Mickelson during '05 win.— Jonathan Wall (@jonathanrwall) August 7, 2014
Chappell and Palmer made no history. They just had a pretty easy go of it. The other two leaders combined for one bogey between them (Palmer on the par-three eighth). Chappell relied on pinpoint accuracy throughout the day—he hit 78 percent of his fairways and 72 percent of his greens—while Palmer struck the ball well off the tee.
The PGA Tour media account pointed out this was by far Palmer's best major round as a pro:
Doug Ferguson of the Associated Press noted that Chappell was in good spirits after his round:
Kevin Chappell with a 66. First thing he says: "Dodgers win last night?" #nervousGiantsfan— Doug Ferguson (@dougferguson405) August 7, 2014
Heading into Friday's second round, the trio at the top are going to have their work cut out for them. McIlroy is lurking a shot behind, Henrik Stenson also turned in a five-under day and a cabal of golfers are within striking distance. As long as Valhalla continues pushing the scores low, anything can happen.
With Woods forcing his way out of contention, that might be a good thing for the networks who are hoping to keep fan interest through the weekend.
Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter.