ATLANTA — Two days after Cameron Smith won the 150th Open Championship at St. Andrews, he answered a call from Rory McIlroy. The Northern Irishman, who finished third behind Smith at the Old Course, had seen him being questioned by a reporter during his victory press conference on whether the Aussie would join LIV Golf at the end of the PGA Tour season .
“I was in London and Cam was at his house in Florida, so I called him,” McIlroy said Thursday at East Lake Golf Club. “I just wanted to let him know what was in the works regarding these changes to the PGA Tour schedule. Whatever decision he makes, I wanted him to have all the information.
A month later, Smith and McIlroy were paired for the opening round of the Tour Championship. Since the Open, reports that world number 2 Smith will join the rival circuit after the FedEx Cup final have only grown. During the FedEx Cup playoff opener in Memphis, Smith reiterated his focus on the PGA Tour playoffs when asked about the LIV Golf speculation.
Whether the topic of a rival tour or the big PGA Tour plans that were revealed this week came up during Smith and McIlroy’s 67 correspondents on Thursday, we don’t know. But the pair chatted like old friends frequently throughout the inning, which left them seven under par and eight behind trailing leader Scottie Scheffler. Scheffler leads Xander Schauffele (66) by five, with US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick (64) six behind.
“It was business as usual; Cam and I get along great and always have,” McIlroy said. “Again, no matter what decisions or choices someone makes, that doesn’t make them a bad person. Does that put me at odds with them? Of course it is. But I disagree with a lot of people I like and love. On the contrary, he’s a really good guy to play with because he plays quite fast and has a good pace. So it’s a nice duo. »
McIlroy, a four-time major winner, certainly needed a good couple to help him through a horrific start. He hit his opening drive out of bounds left en route to a triple bogey. He then bogeyed the second par-3 to be four over two holes. A cell of rain also poured over East Lake as McIlroy and Smith played first.
“Obviously it was the weather,” McIlroy joked of the terrible start. “I tried to hit that little guide-y cut in the [first] fairway. The body stopped, doubled it.
But McIlroy then made seven cents on his next 16 holes to avoid missing out on a third Tour Championship and FedEx Cup title. A holeshot for the Eagle at par-5 sixth and four birdies in his last five holes were the highlights of a truly bizarre round.
“There is a lesson in there somewhere; even when you’re not sure what you’re trying to do, sending me all the way is the best way forward,” he said. “I felt like I was playing myself out of the tournament the first few holes, then I felt like I was coming back into the tournament the last holes.”
Smith’s 67 was a bit more conventional. Like McIlroy, he bogeyed the second and hit the sixth, before a back nine with four birdies and two bogeys.
Smith’s hip injury – an inflamed sciatic nerve that forced him out of last week’s BMW Championship – plagued him on the 18 holes. He seemed to polish it during an impressive 229-yard 3-wood out of the fairway bunker in the sixth. He walked the fairway carefully but still made the eight-foot eagle putt.
“It’s just annoying to be honest. It’s not like my leg is going to fall off or I’m having shooting pains in my head,” said Smith, who has three PGA Tour wins this season. “When it feels spongy like that, it puts more pressure on the hip. This is the first time in a long time that I have felt this affect my golf. I felt I left a lot of shots there to the right.
Smith and McIlroy are far behind Scheffler, but so are East Lake’s other 28 players. While the golf world probably wants the FedEx Cup race to stay a little tighter over the next three days, Scheffler doesn’t. He’s trying to ice off a remarkable season that’s expected to net $32 million in on-course earnings alone. The 26-year-old Texan has already earned $14 million from four PGA Tour victories, although the April Masters was his most recent victory.
“It would definitely be the icing on the cake of the year,” said the world No. 1 after his run. “I’ve played great golf this year at times. All in all, I had what I think was a great year. I’ll just try to keep riding this week.