Pi­eters leads Bridge­stone In­vi­ta­tional by stroke

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - GOLF -

AKRON, Ohio — Rory McIl­roy had his best friend on the bag Thurs­day 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 30-foot birdie putt on his fi­nal hole at Fire­stone to fin­ish a day of good scor­ing with a one-shot lead over Rus­sell Knox.

The open­ing two rounds were moved up to the morn­ing be­cause of a fore­cast of thun­der­storms in the af­ter­noon.

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,” McIl­roy 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 three-putted for bo­gey.

Even so, it was a solid start, and that’s what has held back McIl­roy 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 con­sec­u­tive 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 said 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-birdie-birdie stretch that fol­lowed.

The big­gest putt was the ea­gle from 50 feet on the par-5 15th at the Open, now fa­mous for Spi­eth play­fully bark­ing at his cad­die, “Go get that!” when it dropped in.

Thurs­day brought an­other such mo­ment.

Spi­eth got back into range of the lead with a 30-foot birdie putt on No. 5 and a 50-foot birdie putt on the next hole that got him to 3 un­der. But he was in trou­ble at No. 8, well right of the fair­way with trees block­ing his view of the green. He couldn’t punch un­der them be­cause he had too much rough to cover with a punch shot be­neath the branches. But he did see about a 3-foot gap way up in the trees. And he was feel­ing it.

His cad­die, Michael Greller, got the yardage and came over to see what Spi­eth had in mind.

“I said, ‘Michael, just put the bag over there, stand over there and watch this,’ ” Spi­eth said.

Spi­eth re­hearsed his swing with a pitch­ing wedge and pulled it off.

“I split a hole that was 60 yards in front of me and cut it to get onto the green,” Spi­eth said. “It was re­ally a cool shot. I was shocked I pulled it off.”

Greller smiled, bumped fists with his boss and handed him the put­ter.

AP/TONY DEJAK

Jor­dan Spi­eth shot a 3-un­der 67 in Thurs­day’s first round of the Bridge­stone In­vi­ta­tional. He trails Thomas Pi­eters by two strokes head­ing into to­day’s sec­ond round.

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