The Nos. 2 and 3 ranked players in the world headlined the afternoon wave at Firestone on Thursday, but both Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy failed to break par and gave away several shots with ugly bogeys. Unlike world No. 1 Tiger Woods, who fired a clean round of 66 and was on the pin all morning, Mickelson and McIlroy struggled to get into red numbers.
Mickelson was going for his third straight win, but there was obviously a bit of a letdown from his legendary 66 in the final round at Muirfield. Phil hit the ball all over the yard, consistently missing fairways and lipping out back-to-back bunny putts early on the front side. Those troubles on the green led to an outward nine of 37, certainly a disappointing number on a Firestone South layout that was yielding birdies all morning.
Mickelson rolled in a couple birdies on the back nine, but gave those shots right back each time. After draining a moderate-length birdie putt on par-5 16th, Mickelson then mishit an approach shot into 17 and blasted his first putt way past the cup. The bogey dropped him back to 2-over for the day, where he settled well back of Tiger Woods (-4) and and the lead (-6). It seemed like more of a casual outdoor stroll for Phil, who is still undoubtedly basking in the glow of overcoming his biggest career hurdle -- winning the Claret Jug. He's not played well at this event in the past, and it's unlikely he challenges this year as he preps for next week's PGA Championship at Oak Hill.
Rory finished with an even-par round of 70, carding bogey on the last to drop a shot. It was at this venue last year where McIlroy pulled his game together in advance of the PGA Championship, which he dominated one week later at Kiawah. The slump and struggles seem much more severe this season, and it would be a big surprise if Rory's game rounded into form either this week or next.
Rory had his moments on Thursday, rolling in five birdies. But he couldn't avoid the bogeys in yet another rollercoaster round. An adventurous double on the 10th hole killed his chances of making a run towards the first page of the leaderboard. But three birdies in a four-hole stretch coming in left McIlroy still right in it, even though he's six shots back of Webb Simpson's lead.
Rory McIlroy posted even par round of 70 today. Hasn't broke 70 since May 31.— Shane Bacon (@shanebacon) August 1, 2013
After the round, McIlroy said he "threw two shots" away at No. 10 and threw some more away around the greens, but that he seemed rather pleased with the way he hit the ball. It was in stark contrast to the "lost" and "brainless" comments he made after rounds at his last two tournaments -- the Irish Open and British Open.
The good news for both Rory and Phil is that this is your standard limited-field WGC event with no cut, so they'll be around for the weekend no matter what happens. Both obviously have the talent and game to make a big charge up the leaderboard early Friday morning, where scoring conditions could be more favorable than what they faced in the first round. The goal for both, however, centers more likely on prep and form for next week at Oak Hill. This course is a comparable setup to Oak Hill in that it's a classic tree-lined American parklands course with great length. For Phil, he just needs to work on some shots off the tee and keep that putter going, while Rory needs to find any bit of confidence in all facets of his game.