World number one Rory McIlroy, second-ranked Jordan Spieth and British Open champion Zach Johnson drew the biggest crowds of the day for their afternoon rounds and did not disappoint with a blend of the brilliant, unexpected and unfortunate.
McIlroy, returning from an ankle injury and more than five weeks out to defend his PGA Championship crown, looked very comfortable walking around the course as he mixed four birdies with three bogeys for an opening 71.
Masters and U.S. Open champion Spieth, seeking a rare third major victory in the same year, matched McIlroy’s 71 after parring his first 10 holes before bogeying the 11th and then following up with birdies at the 12th and 16th.
Only Johnson struggled, never feeling comfortable on the tees as strengthening winds buffeted the stunning links-style layout on his way to an opening 75.
“The atmosphere? It was fantastic,” said Spieth, whose round was highlighted by a chip-in for birdie at the par-three 12th that sparked a thunderous ovation from the fans.
“Huge crowds today rooting for all of us. The roar when the chip shot went in was louder than I expected it to be, which was pretty cool. You want to feed off the crowd. Everyone was respectful and knowledgeable.”
Much of the focus this week was always going to be on the remarkable Spieth as he seeks to join fellow Americans Ben Hogan and Tiger Woods as the only players in the modern era to have won three majors in a single year.
Hogan was the first to complete the hat-trick, in 1953, and Woods followed suit in 2000.
Spieth was happy enough to card a 71 in the trickiest conditions of the day.
“When we were starting today, when we saw six-under on the board, we talked about it,” said the 22-year-old American, referring to first-round leader Dustin Johnson’s opening 66 in the calmer conditions of the morning.
“We knew that that was probably not feasible for us, minus a few breaks. It was a different golf course, and we needed to adjust our expectations because of that.
“I’m pleased with it. Under par was a good round this afternoon. We really battled back after 10 and 11 … to salvage an under-par round and really stay in this tournament.”
McIlroy thrilled the fans with an adventurous par at the fifth where he found a fairway bunker off the tee before advancing his ball just 35 yards.
His approach ended up in water to the left of the green but, after assessing his options, he rolled up his right trouser leg before splashing out to 12 feet and calmly sinking the putt.
“The only thing I was trying not to do was get my feet wet,” he smiled. “It was fine. I just had to remember to hit it hard. And I was very fortunate to escape with a par there.
“Overall I felt it was good. It was a solid round of golf. Happy with the way I struck the ball. I think anything under par this afternoon was a decent score.
“I was pretty nervous on the first tee. It was just getting back out there. It was nice to get that opening tee shot out of the way.”
McIlroy birdied the 16th to get to two under before bogeying his final hole, the par-four 18th, after his three-iron approach leaked right of the green into rough.
Like Spieth though, he ended the day just five strokes off the lead and remains in contention for the last of the year’s four majors.
“The ankle held up well and everyone can see that it’s not an issue,” said the 26-year-old Northern Irishman.
“I played well … it was a very encouraging day. I’m in the tournament.”
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)