‘The 18 weirdest holes I’ve ever seen you play’: Inside Rory McIlroy’s bizarre day

Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy hits his tee shot on Thursday on the 8th hole at East Lake Golf Club.

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Rory McIlroy had just gotten home in two on the par-5 18th at East Lake Golf Club, when John Wood relayed a story. The longtime caddie-turned TV analyst had just overheard McIlroy’s bagman during Thursday’s Tour Championship first round, and Harry Diamond had summed things up better than anyone.

“Coming off the 6th green, when he pitched in for eagle, his caddie, Harry Diamond, said, ‘Rory, that’s the strangest six holes I’ve ever seen you play,” Wood said on Golf Channel.

“After he hit that shot, and we’re walking up, he said, ‘Rory, this is the 18 weirdest holes I’ve ever seen you play.”

He may not be wrong, even with strange and weird being most definitely hard to quantify. In the end, a three-under 67 was next to McIlroy’s name on the leaderboard after 18 holes, and he’s at seven-under overall in this staggered-start format, eight shots behind leader Scottie Scheffler. Though Thursday was no three-birdie, no-bogey day, or thereabouts. 

It was strange. It was weird. 

The pairing!

It was both those things even before the balls were in the air. When Will Zalatoris withdrew ahead of the event due to injury, that paired McIlroy with Cameron Smith. And that’s notable. For one, they went back and forth at last month’s Open Championship, where Smith eventually won, though if you like your drama, you may have forgotten that already.  

This was also the PGA Tour’s newfound spokesman playing with the man who may become the face of the other guys as early as next week. In fact, McIlroy revealed earlier on Wednesday that he had called Smith to discuss the chirps that the world’s No. 2 player was considering an offer to play with LIV Golf, the lucrative, upstart series backed by Saudi billions. 

“So my whole thing, like I had a conversation with Cameron Smith two days after the Open, and firstly, I wanted to congratulate him, but also I wanted — guys that are thinking one way or another, honestly I don’t care if they leave or not,” McIlroy said. “It’s not going to make a difference to me. But I would at least like people to make a decision that is completely informed and basically know this is what’s coming down the pipeline. This is what you may be leaving behind.

“I just don’t want people making decisions — hearing information from one side and not from another. So I think that’s sort of been my whole thing this entire time. I’ve always said guys can do whatever they want. Guys can make a decision that they feel is best for themselves and their families. But I want guys to make decisions based on all of the facts.

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“Sometimes I don’t think some guys made those decisions based on having all the facts in front of them.”

OK then. So, how did things go on Thursday?

“Business as usual,” McIlroy said. “Cam and I get on really well. Always have done. Again, I keep saying, no matter what decisions are made or what choices are made by anyone, it doesn’t make them a bad person. Does it make me disagree with them? Of course it does. But I disagree with a lot of people that I like and love.

“Yeah, it’s business as usual. If anything, he’s a really good guy to play with because he plays pretty quick and he has a nice rhythm. So it’s a nice pairing.”

The beginning?

But are we sure these guys are good? In a steady rain, McIlroy double-crossed his opening tee shot — over a boundary fence left. Smith went far right. Before McIlroy had left the tee box, Diamond had another ball in his hand — and McIlroy hit that one again left, into a bunker. There was more. (Or is it less?)

Hitting four from the sand, McIlroy hit short, hit on and two-putted for an opening triple. He bogeyed the par-3 2nd after missing the green right off the tee. He birdied 3, then bogeyed 4 after hitting into a greenside bunker. That’s four-over through two holes, and four-over through four. 

So … what happened?

“I think there was a bit of everything in there,” McIlroy said. “It was obviously the weather. I tried to hit this little guidey cut into the fairway, body stopped, double-crossed it, ball went left and OB. It was sort of — there’s a lesson in there somewhere, but even when you’re not sure about what you’re trying to do, sort of going full send for me is the best way forward.”

Was he frustrated walking off the 2nd green?

“I mean, at that point you’re completely freed up,” McIlroy said. “The rain had stopped, which was nice. It was just sort of go get it, try to get back to even par as quick as possible, and then if you can do that, then reassess your goals and go from there.

“As I said, the golf course was very gettable today, very soft, so I knew there was chances out there.”

The finish! 

From there, McIlroy shot seven-under over his last 14 holes. With two bogeys. 

— He birdied 5 after hitting his second shot to 6 feet. 

— He eagled the par-5 6th on a pitch-in from 35 yards out. Remember Wood’s story from the beginning, about the strangest six holes? This was that. 

—  He birdied 8 on an 11-foot putt and bogeyed the par-3 9th after missing the green with his tee shot. Over the first nine holes, that’s a triple, three bogeys, three birdies, one eagle — and one par. 

— He birdied 12 on a 7-foot putt, then bogeyed 13 after missing the green with his second shot. 

— He birdied 14 on a 14-foot putt, 15 on a 35-foot putt, and 16 on a 7-footer. 

— On 18, he covered 592 yards in two shots and two-putted. In all, that was an eagle, eight birdies, four bogeys, one triple bogey and four pars, for the three-under 67. Whew. Diamond was weirded out. You may be too.

Then there’s this: According to stats guru Justin Ray — who’s also filing reports this week for the Athletic, and you can follow him on Twitter here — Thursday’s round was the second first round McIlroy has had a triple bogey and eagle this season. The first was at the CJ Cup — which McIlroy won.  

How was McIlroy feeling about it all?

“Yeah, I mean, it’s — the last few holes there were huge,” he said. “I felt like I played myself out of the tournament the first few holes, and then I feel like I played myself back into the tournament the last few holes.

“But I think this tournament is — like it depends what Scottie does. I can go out and shoot a really good score tomorrow, but if Scottie is seven or eight or whatever he is ahead of me, then it makes things really difficult. But if I go out and shoot a good score tomorrow and Scottie has a lackluster day, then he brings a lot of guys in it, and over 36 holes anything can happen.

“I think tomorrow is a pretty pivotal day for the rest of the field just to try to get a little closer to where Scottie is.”

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Nick Piastowski

Nick Piastowski

Golf.com Editor

Nick Piastowski is a Senior Editor at Golf.com and Golf Magazine. In his role, he is responsible for editing, writing and developing stories across the golf space. And when he’s not writing about ways to hit the golf ball farther and straighter, the Milwaukee native is probably playing the game, hitting the ball left, right and short, and drinking a cold beer to wash away his score. You can reach out to him about any of these topics — his stories, his game or his beers — at nick.piastowski@golf.com.