The state of Ohio employs the motto, “With God All Things Are Possible”. Regardless of William McGirt’s religious affiliations, he has to be feeling that there is something divine about the Buckeye State, as the 37-year-old North Carolinian holds a three-stroke first round lead at Akron’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, less than four weeks after he won his first career PGA Tour event at The Memorial Tournament in Columbus.
Against a stacked field, typical of a World Golf Championship, and playing at the historically difficult Firestone Country Club, McGirt drew very little attention coming into the week, despite his recent breakthrough victory.
Yet, here he is, three strokes clear of Jimmy Walker, Emiliano Grillo, and the seemingly unstoppable World #1 Jason Day. McGirt played near flawless golf, with six birdies to zero bogeys. His superior ball-striking engendered a first place ranking among the 62-man field in strokes gained: tee-to-green. His game had no apparent weaknesses, and McGirt expressed after the round that he is feeling good everywhere.
“I hit a lot of good, solid shots, and fortunately, the putter was working for me.” McGirt said. “I drove it well all day up until 18, which was the worst drive I hit. You know, it was just one of those rounds where everything was a perfect number, a perfect club. I hit a lot of good iron shots and a lot of putts.
Up until The Memorial, McGirt’s career had been relatively nondescript, averaging just under $1 million per year in earnings over his previous five seasons. He is in line to make much more this year, success he credits largely to his improved putting.
“We’ve been doing a lot of work on my golf swing, and trying to tighten things up and make it more consistent.” said McGirt. “I think we’ve done a really good job with that, you know, the big this is, knock on wood, I’ve putted really well since Hilton Head (the RBC Heritage). I really struggled with the putter early in the year, and I told JT (his caddie) the other day, I don’t think I’ve ever had this much confidence in my putter for so long.”
If McGirt is going to conquer Firestone and win his second tournament in his last three tries, he will need to hold off a lot of elite players. One of those players, Jordan Spieth, was in the midst of a terrible round by his standards: +2 at one point on the back nine after a stretch where he hit just one green in 10 holes. Spieth dug deep and showed amazing resiliency, with birdies on his last four holes to finish at -2, four back of McGirt’s lead. It was a round Spieth referred to as his “best mental round in a long time”.
I hit the greens, I was making some nice par saves to grind it out, and then finally those par saves turned into birdie putts. I really won the battle in my head today. I could have shot four or five over pretty easily with the way I was striking the ball tee-to-green, but this was a round similar to last year when I got off, and that kind of bodes well for the rest of the year. We try to approach this tournament as the turnaround for the second half of the season, and I think it was a really good start.” said Spieth.
Another big story at Firestone was Dustin Johnson, fresh off a week in the Bahamas, playing competitively for the first time since his U.S. Open victory. Despite not playing much last week, by his admission, and being distracted by college baseball (he is an alumni of Coastal Carolina University, who won their first championship today in any sport) during today’s round, Johnson led the field in driving distance on the way to a respectable 1-under 69.
Other notable good scores include Rickie Fowler’s 2-under 68, and one-under 69s from Billy Hurley III’s, last weeks improbable winner at Congressional, Matt Kuchar, and Justin Rose.
On the other end of the spectrum was a poor round from Phil Mickelson, who shot a 3-over 73. Jim Furyk who has been a top-10 machine during his career at Firestone, also disappointed today, with a 4-over 74. Defending champion Shane Lowry may still be attempting to shake off his recent collapse at the U.S. Open, only managed one birdie today, as he finished +6.
With no cut at this tournament, all three, barring injury, are guaranteed to play the weekend, but will need to figure things out quickly to be relevant on Sunday.