By Josh Ball, PGA.com Contributor
SOUTHAMPTON, Bermuda -- Rory McIlroy said he was frustrated but happy following his first-round 67 at the PGA Grand Slam of Golf on Tuesday.
The U.S. Open champion from Northern Ireland birdied three of the last five holes at Port Royal Golf Course to peg back early pacesetter Keegan Bradley, the reigning PGA champion, and the pair finished the first day tied for the lead at 4-under-par 67.
Masters champion Charl Schwartzel and British Open winner Darren Clarke, meanwhile, both had days they are likely to want to forget, with Schwartzel firing a 3-over 74 and Clarke a 6-over 77.
McIlroy’s troubles on the greens were the main cause of his frustration, and he missed birdie opportunities at Nos. 2, 4 and 6 when he failed to sink putts from inside 10 feet.
Birdies at No. 5, when he nearly drove the green on the 380-yard par 4, and again at No. 7, where he missed a short putt for eagle, at least kept him in sight of Bradley on the front nine, who was 5 under at that stage.
“It was getting a little bit frustrating,” said McIlroy, “because I was reading them, and every time … I felt as if I was hitting the putt on the line I wanted to, but it was just going nowhere near the hole.
“The greens that I have been putting on the last couple of weeks have been a little different to the greens here,” he explained. “I had not really been factoring in the grain as much but it plays a huge part on these greens. I finished really, really well … so, to draw level with him (Bradley) after the first day was nice.”
Bradley had no such troubles and his flying start was propelled by eagles at the par-5 second and seventh. He hit 6-iron approaches to within two feet at both and he called the one to No. 7 “the best shot I’ve ever hit in my life.”
While the 6-iron to No. 7 was probably the highlight of his round, a 20-foot putt for bogey at the first hole really set the tone for a front nine, where Bradley just couldn’t seem to miss once he hit the green.
The only surprise was that he parred Nos. 4 and 5, and on the par-3 fifth he needed a 30-footer to save par.
“It was really awesome to make that putt on one,” said Bradley. “It was a great day. I got off to a really good start and I kind of slowed down on the back, but actually still played very well.”
At 6 under through 11, Bradley had a five-shot lead on McIlroy, who three-putted the same hole and dropped back to 1 under as his woes on the greens continued.
The momentum shifted slightly on No. 12 when McIlroy drained a 30-footer for birdie and Bradley, who hit his approach long, could only get up and down for par.
Bradley dropped a shot at No. 14, when he missed from a foot, and with McIlroy birding the same hole, the two-shot swing changed the complexion of the round.
McIlroy crushed another drive down No. 15, which saw him finish just 10 yards short of the green on the 412-yard par 4. That set up another birdie opportunity, which he took, closing the gap on Bradley to just two shots.
The defining moment for the round came on the par-3 16th, where McIlroy was the only one of the foursome to hit the green during a brief rainstorm. And though he walked away with a par, Bradley’s bogey closed the gap to one shot.
Schwartzel and Clarke, meanwhile, both hit their tee shots into the sea, and walked away with triple bogeys.
McIlroy’s strong finish continued on 17, where he made birdie on the back of another solid drive. And with Bradley battling to stay with him, the momentum is certainly with the U.S. Open winner going into the final round Wednesday, when the fight for the trophy is likely to be a two-horse race.
Clarke was typically blunt in describing his round as “crap,” and said he hadn’t come to Bermuda to “play that badly.”
A round that never really got going saw Clarke slip to 3 over after the first four holes, and despite birdies at 6 and 7, Clarke dropped another shot at the par-3 eighth, where his tee shot finished in the left hand bunker, and he reached the turn at 2 over.
The Northern Irishman’s troubles at No. 16 largely summed up his round, and bogey on the last completed a miserable start to Clarke’s Grand Slam.
“Obviously I’m disappointed,” he said. “I’m struggling with my swing and I’m struggling with my ball-striking. So, if you mix that with putting equally bad, that usually doesn’t add up to a good score.”