McIl­roy, Spi­eth sit two back of Pi­eters

Knox one be­hind Bel­gian leader at Bridge­stone In­vi­ta­tional; Hughes strug­gles with 4-over 74

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - DOUG FER­GU­SON

AKRON, OHIO — Rory McIl­roy had his best friend on the bag and his best start on Amer­i­can soil in 18 months. For Jor­dan Spi­eth, it was more of the same with two long putts and an­other com­ment filled with bravado di­rected at his cad­die.

Both of them opened with a 3-un­der 67 at the Bridge­stone In­vi­ta­tional, leav­ing them two shots be­hind Thomas Pi­eters of Bel­gium.

Pi­eters, play­ing only for the sixth time since he chal­lenged briefly at the Mas­ters this year, holed a 30foot birdie putt on his fi­nal hole at Fire­stone to fin­ish a day of good scor­ing with a one-shot lead over Rus­sell Knox.

Adam Had­win of Ab­bots­ford, B.C., is three back af­ter a 68, and Mackenzie Hughes, of Dun­das, strug­gled to a 4-over fol­low­ing a 74.

McIl­roy split with J.P. Fitzger­ald, his cad­die of nine years, af­ter the Bri­tish Open. He de­cided to use Harry Di­a­mond, who played ama­teur golf for Ire­land and was the best man at McIl­roy’s wed­ding, for the Bridge­stone In­vi­ta­tional and the PGA Cham­pi­onship next week.

It didn’t have much bear­ing on McIl­roy’s game, which was fine. McIl­roy won at Fire­stone the last time he played it in 2014.

“We both did the num­bers and I sort of con­sulted him a cou­ple of times. Yeah, it was good,” he said. “There was a cou­ple of shots that I hit or a cou­ple of clubs that I pulled that I maybe should have just thought a lit­tle bit more about. It’s been a while since I’ve paced yardages off and writ­ten notes in my book.”

One of them was at No. 9, his last hole, when he went some 50 feet long on his ap­proach and three­p­utted for bo­gey. Even so, it was a solid start, and that’s what has held McIl­roy back in re­cent months, when he missed three cuts in four tour­na­ments, and then started poorly at the Bri­tish Open.

Spi­eth has no such con­cerns, hav­ing won two straight events go­ing into this World Golf Cham­pi­onship with an eye to­ward next week at the PGA Cham­pi­onship — and his shot at be­com­ing the youngest player to com­plete the Grand Slam.

Win­ning a ma­jor turned this into a great year for Spi­eth, re­gard­less of what hap­pens at the PGA Cham­pi­onship. He is feel­ing as good as ever about his game, par­tic­u­larly the way he fin­ished off Royal Birk­dale with the amaz­ing es­cape on the 13th hole, and the birdie-ea­gle-birdiebirdie stretch that fol­lowed. The open­ing round was no place to lose ground in such good scor­ing con­di­tions. Dustin John­son did his part with a 68. He hasn’t won since the Match Play just two weeks be­fore his stair­case in­jury that knocked him out of the Mas­ters. John­son only wants to give him­self a chance to win, and he says all the parts are in work­ing order for that.

Bubba Wat­son, also showed signs of get­ting his game turned around. He was in the group at 67 with Kevin Kis­ner and Jon Rahm.

The sur­prise might have been Knox, who has missed his last three cuts and is in dan­ger of fall­ing out of the top 50 in the world for the first time since he won the HSBC Cham­pi­ons in Shang­hai in the fall of 2015. The dif­fer­ence was a change in the shafts of his irons, and a change back to the put­ter he used when he won in Shang­hai.

The ques­tion is why he would ever take that put­ter out of play.

“Golfers are sick,” Knox said. “You al­ways blame your equip­ment rather than your­self. So maybe I just have to take the blame and say I (stunk) and the put­ter worked.”

LEAH KLAFCZYNSKI, AKRON BEA­CON JOUR­NAL

Jor­dan Spi­eth gets out of trou­ble on the eighth hole, putting a per­fect shot up through the trees from 60 yards out and onto the green.

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