Rory McIlroy continued to bounce back from his US Open disappointment by positioning himself three shots off the halfway lead at the Travelers Championship.
The Northern Irishman, who missed the cut in the year’s second major at Shinnecock Hills last week after struggling to an opening 80, followed his first round 64 with a 69 at TPC River Highlands in Connecticut.
He had briefly tied the lead when he got to eight under after holing a 20-foot putt for his second birdie of the day at the second hole, but a late bogey left the four-time major winner three adrift of halfway leader Brian Harman.
McIlroy’s first birdie had come at the 296-yard 15th, where he drove into a greenside bunker and splashed out to six feet, but a bogey three holes from home dropped him back to seven under.
“I’m going to do a little bit of work on the range and try and get a little bit more comfortable for the weekend,” McIlroy told pgatour.com.
“If I can put the ball on the fairway and hit my irons as well as I have done the first couple of days I’ll give myself a lot of chances for birdies and it’s just about converting them and taking your opportunities.”
Matt Jones, Russell Henley and Zach Johnson were all one behind Harman, who shot a round of 66, while England’s Paul Casey moved into a share of fifth place on eight under after a 67, which included six birdies and three bogeys.
However, overnight joint leader Jordan Spieth, also starting on the back nine, came unstuck in spectacular fashion at the 523-yard 13th after driving out of bounds and then hitting his approach into the greenside lake to card a triple-bogey eight.
He was in the water again at the 15th on his way to a bogey five which dropped him to three under but rescued his round with an eagle at the par-five sixth hole, having hit his approach inside two feet, to close with a 73 and finish four under.
A resurgent Ian Poulter claimed a share of the clubhouse lead as windy conditions sent scores soaring on the first day of the US Open, with Rory McIlroy among the high-profile victims.
Poulter, who was ranked outside the world’s top 200 just 15 months ago, carded a one-under-par 69 to join American Scott Piercy at the top of the leaderboard at Shinnecock Hills.
But McIlroy’s hopes of a second US Open title and first major since 2014 were blown away as he slumped to a 10-over-par 80, his worst score in the US Open, taking his combined total since winning with a tournament-record score of 16 under in 2011 to 53 over.
Playing partners Jordan Spieth and Phil Mickelson fared little better with rounds of 78 and 77 respectively, while former British Amateur champion Scott Gregory slumped to an unfortunate 92, the first score in the 90s in this event since 2002.
Poulter missed the cut on his US Open debut at Shinnecock in 2004 and has yet to record a top-10 finish, while his 69 is the first time he has broken 70 in the opening round.
“I did not enjoy it at all in 2004 and through most of the US Opens it feels like you are pulling teeth,” said Poulter, who claimed his first victory since 2012 in the Houston Open earlier this season.
“It’s supposed to be tough but this week I’ve changed my mindset. I’m here to enjoy my golf, play freely and just go and play. It was brutal out there and I’m glad they have widened the fairways otherwise I don’t know what the scores would have been.”
McIlroy had been bullish about his prospects after a lengthy spell of preparation at Shinnecock and other courses on Long Island, but after missing from seven feet for birdie on the 10th, his opening hole, he dropped six shots in the next four holes.
A birdie on the 15th briefly stopped the rot, but McIlroy bogeyed the 16th and 18th to reach the turn in 42 and then ran up a double bogey on the first after a wayward tee shot.
It is the first time the former world number one has carded three double bogeys in a round in the majors and although he birdied the fifth and sixth, further shots were squandered on the seventh and ninth.
That left McIlroy needing to emulate joint-leader Piercy’s reversal in fortunes to have a chance of making the cut, the American having walked off the course in frustration at the state of his game on Wednesday.
“I was skanking it and lost like five balls in the first four holes. I’m like ‘I’m outta here'” Piercy explained. “I needed some time away so we went back to the house, ordered some pizza and I actually went back on my Instagram.
“I looked at some swings that I posted, positions that I was in, saw some drills I was doing and then just ran from there.”
The 29-year-old quadruple major champion said he had kept patient and drew on his experience despite at times the windy conditions exposing flaws in his game, he still came in one-under par to join last year’s runner-up Francesco Molinari on 13 under par.
They have a four shot cushion on a quartet which includes last year’s champion Alex Noren, who also had an adventure-filled round.
“It was a struggle out there today,” said McIlroy, who won the PGA title in 2014 but has also missed four cuts.
“But I am proud of myself as I stayed patient and relied on my experience.
“It is pleasing to still be up there and tied for the lead.”
McIlroy began badly including a double bogey at the sixth where during his event-filled journey to the green he managed to hit a female spectator on the hand with one shot — her wincing in pan reflecting the feelings of McIlroy’s many followers in the gallery.
He steadied himself in the middle and kept himself on the tail of Molinari although once again on the 18th a wild drive this time drew blood from the head of another female spectator who was comforted by him and then was swathed in bandages.
“It obviously affects you when you see blood,” said McIlroy, who along with playing partner Sam Horsfield also hit the same unfortunate marshal on the 17th.
“I said sorry and I hope they are ok. I don’t know what else I could do offering them a glove wouldn’t have been much of a consolation.
“Are the crowds too close to play here? Well when you’re hitting the balls like I was today they are,” he added smiling.
McIlroy, who after a bright start to the season has seen his form go flat since the Masters eluded him once again in April, said there was enough quality behind to give him and Molinari food for thought.
“We have a cushion so it could be a two hose race if we get off to good starts,” he said.
“However, look what happened last year Alex cam from nowhere and blew them away.”
Whilst McIlroy’s round was anything but a thing of beauty Molinari’s was picture perfect with six birdies and even when the Italian put his ball into water on the final hole he managed to save par.
– ‘In the heart of Italian Golfers’ -Molinari, a two-time winner of the Italian Open, is all too mindful of what happened last year but he is keen to add his name to the list of previous Italian winners.
“It would be amazing to win here with such a tradition,” said Molinari.
“It’s a course that is in the heart of Italian Golfers, as well, with Costantino (Rocca in 1996) and Matteo (Manassero in 2013) winning here in the past,” added the 35-year-old.
Noren, who denied Molinari last year with a scintillating last round 62, is very much still in contention posting three successive birdies early on the back nine before handing those shots back but finished with two more birdies.
Veteran Lee Westwood is also lying ready to pounce as he carded a second successive 69, leaving the 45-year-old Englishman five off the lead.
Westwood, who was named a Ryder Cup vice-captain earlier in the week but if he won the PGA could easily qualify for the team in a competition he has reserved some of his finest Golf for, said he was delighted to be in with a chance of victory.
“I figured if the breeze got up Rory would drop some shots,” said Westwood.
“I think being in contention in these big tournaments is what it’s all about. It’s where you want to be, and it’s nice to have a chance tomorrow.”