Balky putter holding McIlroy back

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — It is nowhere near as simple as making the hard part look easy and turning the simpler tasks into something far more difficult.

But that is basically what Rory McIlroy finds himself faced with at the moment as he hits plenty of good shots but can’t make the putts that would lead to good scores.

The two-time PGA Championship winner who is ranked fourth in the world couldn’t manage a single birdie Thursday at Baltusrol Golf Club, shooting a 4-over-par 76 that left him well back of leader Jimmy Walker and searching for answers.

“You give yourself chances the first couple of holes, you don’t convert,” McIlroy said. “You want to get off to a good start. I feel like, if I had holed one of those first two, it might have been a different story of the day. You get a little bit of momentum, and you get it going.

“With the poa annua greens, you start to look a lot into them. You read it from behind the ball and you see one line; you read it from behind the hole and it looks slightly different. You put yourself in two minds sometimes.”

Although the surface of the putting greens at Baltusrol might have given McIlroy fits, truth be told he has struggled with his putting for most of the year. He made a switch to a left-hand low grip in March, then changed back to a conventional grip in May despite winning the Irish Open with the new technique.

Putting has typically been McIlroy’s nemesis, the part of his game that would be considered average or even substandard compared with the rest of his skills. He needed 35 putts Thursday despite hitting a respectable 9 of 14 fairways and 13 of 18 greens in regulation.

His proximity to the hole average of 31 feet is another problem, and for the year he ranks just 84th on the PGA Tour in approaches to the hole from 100 to 125 yards. From 125 to 150, it is even worse, as McIlroy is 148th, averaging 24 feet, 6 inches.

Considering how far McIlroy hits the ball — he averages 304 yards off the tee and was 308 on Thursday — his inability to hit it close with short irons helps explain some of the putting woes.

“Just not a lot of momentum out there,” said McIlroy, who shot his first over-par score in the first round of a PGA, this being his eighth appearance in the event. “But I’m happy with my game from tee to green. Driving the ball as well as I have, ever. Iron play feels good.

“Just, when I get on the greens, it’s just a different story. I need to try and figure it out for tomorrow. Try to shoot something in the mid-60s and get myself back into it.”

McIlroy is not working with a putting coach at the moment and said he has simply tried to figure things out on his own, hoping to find the proper feel and pace.

It is somewhat how his year has gone. He tied for 10th at the Masters but played the third round in 77 without a birdie. He won the Irish Open and tied for fourth at the Memorial, but missed the cut at the U.S. Open. He was in contention at the French Open, where he finished third, but never felt as if he was in the tournament at The Open, shooting a final-round 67 to snag a share of fifth — although he was 16 shots behind winner Henrik Stenson.

“I feel there’s been times where I got a little bit of momentum, and then sort of got set back a little bit,” McIlroy said before the tournament. “It’s been a little stop-start in a way. But it’s hard. I’m trying to stay as positive as I can. I feel like I am positive because my game is in good shape. But I guess just maybe running out of patience a little bit and trying to make it happen.”

That would have been understandable Thursday. It’s tough to continually hit long drives or good approaches and come up with nothing. McIlroy had six birdie chances inside 15 feet and made none of them. He missed a couple of makeable par putts, too.

There was not much more he could say other than he’d work on it.

“I’ll try to spend as much as I can,” he said. “Obviously it’s very hot out here. I’ll possibly just go back to the house that we rented, chill out a little bit, and maybe come back this evening and hit some putts when it cools off. Not that it cools off that much in the evenings.”

McIlroy’s putter might be the only thing that is cold around Baltusrol.

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