It would seem difficult to defend his FedEx Cup title with a back issue, but McIlroy is certainly not out of it. With the staggered scoring of the Tour Championship, McIlroy remains at 7-under par. He is tied for seventh place. He entered the first round third. Collin Morikawa, Keegan Bradley and Viktor Hovland lead the tournament at 10 under.
McIlroy said his right side felt tight on Tuesday morning. After doing some stretching, he said he reached for something and his right side seized up. He said he has dealt with the issue before when he plays a lot of golf. After two hours of treatment, McIlroy flew to Atlanta and later had more treatment.
On Wednesday, feeling better, he went to the gym for more work.
“I was at the bottom of a squat, a body-weight squat, and my whole lower back spasmed, seized up,” McIlroy said. “I couldn’t move.”
On Thursday, McIlroy used the cold tub and said he hit about 20 wedges, his first swings since the BMW Championship last week.
News broke Thursday that McIlroy was dealing with a lower back injury. Television cameras showed him grimacing as he warmed up before his 1:49 p.m. tee time.
“I was always going to tee off,” McIlroy said. “It was just a matter of how I felt on the course. And it got progressively a little tighter as I went, but it will hopefully get loosened up here and just another 20 -- or 18 hours of recovery and go again (Friday).”
McIlroy’s round featured four birdies and four bogeys. After birdies at Nos. 13, 15 and 16, it appeared he would end strong, but a bogey at No. 18 left him even and four places lower than he started the day.
That’s Schenk, not Shank
Adam Schenk has yet to win on the PGA Tour. His invitation to the Tour Championship is based on consistency – 15 top-10 finishes this season – not flash.
He does not lack, however, for a sense of humor.
In an obviously good mood after shooting 63 in Thursday’s first round at East Lake and moving into surprising contention, Schenk was asked how it felt to go so low and still finish two shots back of his playing partner. That would be Collin Morikawa, who came in at 61.
“It sounds bad to say, but I’ve never won out here, so I guess I get kind of used to losing a little bit,” he smiled.
“But I played great. If I would continue to do that, hopefully I’ll get that monkey off my back someday. But I played great, he just played a little better.”
Getting to the Tour Championship just means more to a player of Schenk’ modest credentials than to many of the big stars. With this spot comes a two-year exemption on the PGA Tour, eliminating a lot of pressure on a player of his rank.
“It’s like winning, I guess, because I get the extra year,” he said.
Schenk comes from working stock, literally from the grass roots level of the golf industry. He grew up on his family’s sod farm in Indiana, a supplier of grass to nearby courses. He certainly didn’t lack for a place to hit balls.
Given the big renovation coming to the East Lake course at the close of this Tour Championship, one wondered if the Schenk Sod Farm might get a little more business once Adam scoops up his riches here.
He played that one for laughs, too:
“I don’t think so. That’s an awfully long way to go. This grass around here is pretty nice. I don’t know if my dad’s grass is that nice. It’s not a lot either. This grass is really, really, really good.
“His grass is good too, but I like to needle him.”
The stat to watch this week
When earlier this week Rory McIlroy pointed out that world’s No. 1 Scottie Scheffler “could end up with the best ball-striking season of all time,” he wasn’t just trafficking in hyperbole.
One very gaudy number may support that. If Scheffler finishes the season hitting at least 62 greens in regulation this week at the Tour Championship, he’ll be the first PGA Tour pro to finish with a GIR percentage of 75% or better since Tiger Woods in 2000.
“That’s the benchmark for all of us,” McIlroy said.
Needing to hit an average of just over 15 greens in regulation per round this week, Scheffler opened his disappointing 71 by hitting 14 of 18 greens Thursday.
“The numbers he’s put up this year are phenomenal. Like unbelievable,” McIlroy said. “Like being able to gain over a shot with both your driver and your approach play (his strokes gained off the tee is 1.05, strokes gained approach 1.3).”
Such accuracy traditionally makes missing greens not an option.
The East Lake Glide Path
The road home in this Tour Championship promises to be paved with birdies. And a couple eagles, too.
Holes 16 through 18 Thursday played as three of the easiest five holes at East Lake Thursday. The 30-player field played the 463-yard par 4, 435-yard par 4 and 594-yard par 5 at a combined 36 under.
As co-leader Collin Morikawa recalled his close Thursday, “At that point I was just telling myself I wanted two (birdies) to finish on the last three holes. It’s very doable out here. Eighteen is a very gettable par 5. Especially with the wind down today. Seventeen is short. So it’s nice to get 3 out of that.” He closed birdie-birdie-birdie to finish off his day’s best round of 61.
Much volatility awaits the close of business Sunday.