PGA: McIlroy’s back nine comeback shows how good his game is now

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – If you were expecting the big-name American golfers to jump into immediate contention at the 96th PGA Championship on Thursday you would have been disappointed big-time.

Tiger Woods, after his dramatic late arrival at Valhalla on Thursday, shot 74. He admitted “that wasn’t very good,’’ but at least he had a better day than Matt Kuchar, who withdrew before the round started because of back spasms, and defending champion Jason Dufner, who quit after 10 holes because the pain in his neck made playing on “pointless.’’

Dufner made a triple bogey eight on the last hole he played, was 8-over-par for the tournament and declared in a parking lot meeting with the media that “I’m just not able to play golf right now.’’

Woods, still on the mend after back surgery, had a rare pairing with Phil Mickelson but neither could excite the huge, roving gallery. Mickelson, who finished at 2-under-par 69, said Woods “played with a lot of heart’’ and thanked the PGA of America for the pairing.

All those aches and pains made for a less-than-exciting leaderboard at the end of the day. On top, all at 6-under-par 65, were former world No. 1 Lee Westwood of England; Kevin Chappell, a 28-year old Californian who has one top-10 in 28 starts on the PGA Tour this season; and Ryan Palmer, the only one of the trio saddled with an afternoon tee time when playing conditions are generally more difficult.

Most interesting of the Round 1 results was the 66 posted by Jim Furyk, who joins current world No. 1 Rory McIlroy, Sweden’s Henrik Stenson and Spain’s Edoardo Molinari at one shot off the lead entering Friday’s Round 2. Furyk has the track record to win this last of the year’s major tournaments. Champion of the 2003 U.S. Open at Olympia Fields, Furyk was runner-up to Dufner in last year’s PGA at Oak Hill in New York.

A schedule change has seemingly ignited Furyk this season. He took a month off after the U.S. Open, where he tied for 12th. He returned to action with a fourth in the British Open, a second in the Canadian Open and a 15th in the Bridgestone Invitational.

“First time I’ve ever done that in midseason,’’ said Furyk. “Surprisingly I came out pretty mechanically sound. Now I’m fresh mentally.’’

The decision to take a midseason break didn’t come easily. It took sports psychologist Bob Rotella to convince Furyk to take a break.

“My dad’s been trying to get me to play less golf for five years,’’ said Furyk. “My wife would probably love for me to play less but is always supportive no matter what I do.’’

Furyk solicited Rotella’s help to help him better manage his time.

“I had never worked with a sports psychologist for 19 and a half years of my career,’’ said Furyk. “It really wasn’t anything to do with my game. He’s an easy person to talk to, and I have a hard time usually opening up to people and to strangers. Definitely his thoughts have helped me be more patient this year.’’

As for McIlroy, he recovered from a double bogey at the par-5 10th hole and a three-putt bogey at No. 11 thanks to four straight birdies from Nos. 12-15 and another bird at the last. Coming off wins in the British Open and Bridgestone Invitational, McIlroy admitted the bad back nine start was a concern.

“It’s (the tee shot at No. 10) one of the only bad shots I’ve hit in a few weeks,’’ he said. “What I was really angry about was, you don’t compound that error and make a bogey on the next hole. I was hot, and I was trying to use that fire as a fuel to propel myself forward. It just shows where my game is mentally right now, that I was able to do that.’’

Luke Donald, another afternoon starter and former world No. 1, got within a stroke of the lead after 13 holes, then lost four shots to par on the last five holes to post a 70. Wheaton’s Kevin Streelman, the other player in the field with Chicago connections, finished birdie-birdie for a 2-under 69.