Perhaps 45 minutes later, Rory McIlroy — presumed by some to be Woods’s heir as the game’s best player — found himself to the left of the third fairway, his ball up against the root of a tree. He made the decision, not a prudent one, to swing away to the green. As soon as his club hit the root at full force, he let it fly, and moments later grimaced at his right wrist. The rest of his day involved icing that wrist, wrapping it in a towel, eventually taping it up, the first layer of a mummy costume. Somehow, he shot an even-par 70, and headed for an MRI exam. His management team released a statement Thursday night saying the “initial diagnosis” was a strained tendon in his right wrist.
“It was obviously very painful,” McIlroy said.
All of this misery threatened to overshadow the beauty of Steve Stricker’s opening 63, which included no pain, no second guesses, not a single bogey. He tied the record for lowest score in a major, a feat accomplished 25 times, most recently by McIlroy at the 2010 British Open at St. Andrews.
Stricker, 44, has never won a major — he’s actually rarely contended in them — but he is currently the highest-ranked American player in the world at No. 5. He can, too, say something neither Woods nor McIlroy can at the moment: He is physically fit, at ease with his swing, and exceptionally comfortable in his own skin, whether a major title lies ahead or not.
“I’ve kind of given myself a break,” Stricker said. “I’m a little easier on myself. I really have nothing more to prove out here, except maybe to win a major.”
Woods, of course, has done that — 14 times over. But with each competitive round — and there have been so few of them in a year interrupted by injuries to his left knee and Achilles’ tendon — he not only slips further from his most recent major win, the 2008 U.S. Open, but he creeps no closer to his next one.
Thursday, he began with birdies on three of his first five holes. Oddly, that might have set him back. Woods said he approached his start by concentrating on the mechanics of the swing changes he has made over the past year. When he played well early, he tricked himself into thinking he could drop the mechanical thoughts and just play.
“I figured I was 3 under, I can start letting it go now, and just play by instinct and feel,” Woods said. “And [I] just screwed up my whole round. I’m not at that point where I can do that yet.”
When he birdied the 14th — his fifth hole of the day — he was actually tied with Stricker and others for the lead. He finished tied for 129th in a 156-man field, 14 shots back, after making double bogeys at 15, 18 and 6, finding water twice and sand a dozen times.
Should he have ignored instinct and feel and concentrated on mechanics?
“Absolutely,” said Woods, who has only missed the cut in majors twice as a pro — at the 2006 U.S. Open and the 2009 British Open. “I wouldn’t have done what I did today. That’s what’s frustrating, because I’m in a major championship. It’s time to score, it’s time to play, it’s time to let it go, and it cost me the round.”
McIlroy’s decision to swing freely at No. 3 looked as if it could cost him more than that. Wrists are essential for golfers, and surgery on them can waste a year or more. Yet when the 22-year-old McIlroy stood over the ball, he thought about making par, rather than a punch-out that might have led to bogey.
“It was dangerous,” he said. “. . . I thought if I could make contact with the ball and just let the club go I might get away with it, and in hindsight it would’ve been better to chip out sideways.”
McIlroy said he thought about withdrawing, perhaps never so seriously as at the fourth green, when he looked downtrodden and in pain. “It’s the last major of the year,” he said. “I’ve got what, six or seven months to the Masters?”
By the sixth hole, he had been looked at by two therapists. By No. 8, his wrist was fully taped. Yet he managed to make four birdies, and might have turned in a better score if not for a pair of short missed putts.
The question now: What next?
“If I can strap it up and play again” Friday, McIlroy said, “I will.”
On the leader board, both McIlroy and Woods were afterthoughts compared to Stricker. At his final hole, the ninth, he had a 12-foot putt for 62, for history. He missed it. That was fine.
“I came to the course not really expecting too much,” Stricker said. What he got was a record-tying performance. What the tournament got was much more mercurial, with its two brightest stars headed to Friday facing vastly different questions, one not of sound mind, the other not of sound body.