Rory McIlroy’s rough plan nets share of lead at BMW Championship

AP photo by Charles Rex Arbogast / Rory McIlroy lines up a putt on the first green during the opening round of the PGA Tour's BMW Championship on Thursday in Olympia Fields, Ill.

OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. — Rory McIlroy didn't mind being in the rough at rain-soaked Olympia Fields, except for having trees and a bunker between him and the 17th green. And even that didn't matter Thursday in the BMW Championship.

McIlroy found the short grass only six times with 18 tee shots — three of them on par 3s — and no one would have guessed that looking at his scorecard. He played bogey-free for a 5-under-par 65, giving him a share of the lead with British Open champion Brian Harman after the first day of the second event in the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup playoffs.

"Only hitting three fairways today and coming up with 65 is a bit of a bonus," McIlroy said.

The greens were so soft from a two-hour rain delay in the morning, McIlroy realized trying to get at pins was easier coming from the rough because the ball wouldn't have as much spin.

"I'm not saying I was trying to aim for the rough," he said with a smile.

The spot he found himself in at the par-4 17th certainly wasn't ideal. He had only 116 yards left on the 456-yard hole, but he also had a stand of trees blocking his path to the green, with a big bunker in front of the putting surface.

He punched a 7-iron shot through a gap in the branches, just over the bunker, just over the green, and then chipped in for a birdie.

It was that kind of day.

"There was a couple of branches above the window I was looking at, and I was like, 'If it hits those, it's just going to drop down near that front left bunker, and I'll have a decent angle down the green and have a 10-footer or less to save par," he said. "It was a bit of a hit and a hope. Just trying to thread that needle. It was either chip it out or take it on. And it's only Thursday.

"I thought, 'What the heck? I'll take it on and see what happens.'"

Harman, who returned from his British Open triumph last week at the FedEx Cup playoff opener in Memphis with some rust, delivered his excitement toward the end of the round. He holed a 40-foot birdie putt on the par-3 16th, then chipped in for another birdie on the 17th.

The co-leaders were were one shot clear of a six-man group at 66 that included Scottie Scheffler, who is No. 2 in the FedEx Cup standings — behind only Jon Rahm, who was tied for 12th on the leaderboard after a 68 — with the field of contenders down to the top 50. Only the top 30 advance to next week's finale, the Tour Championship at Atlanta's East Lake Golf Club.

Baylor School graduate Harris English, currently 49th in the standings, also opened with a 68.

Scheffler had gone nine months without finishing worse than 12th, but he has gone consecutive weeks outside the top 20 while struggling with his putter. For him, it was nice to see them go in for a change.

Lucas Glover, going for his third straight victory in as many weeks, opened with a 70.

Rahm won at Olympia Fields in 2020 on a course so dry and firm that 4 under got him into a playoff he won over Dustin Johnson.

This was green, lush and soaked by heavy rain.

The rough was long and wet. The greens were so soft it made it a challenge to hit it the right distance — especially with a back pin — knowing the ball would zip back. That's why McIlroy didn't mind if the ball was in the rough. This was a time to blast away, and the game's most artistic driver put on a show.

"A lot of the tee shots I was just being super aggressive because I knew in the back of my mind I wasn't really being penalized for it," McIlroy said. "The golf course is certainly not playing the way it played in 2020. That was not my approach a few years ago here.

"But hopefully with the wind and the sun, the golf course starts to firm up a little bit and starts to play a little bit more like how I think it should play."