Rory McIlroy faces an uphill battle to maintain his brilliant record in the US PGA Championship after struggling to an opening 74 at Baltusrol.
McIlroy blamed poor putting for his failure to record a single birdie after four bogeys left him nine shots behind clubhouse leader Jimmy Walker, with England’s Ross Fisher and Argentina’s Emiliano Grillo a shot off the summit.
“Tee to green is not the problem, but when I get to the greens it’s a different story,” McIlroy, 27, said.
“I had a couple of chances early on that I could not convert and then missed a couple of greens and did not get up and down and I was always chasing it from there.
“I really struggled with the pace. They look much quicker than they are and two or three times I had putts within 12 feet that were downhill and left them short.
“I need to be more aggressive with my stroke, figure it out tomorrow and shoot something in the mid-60s and get into the weekend. That’s the first objective. I will stay as patient as I can and try to turn it around.”
McIlroy lifted the Wanamaker Trophy in 2012 and 2014 and has recorded three other top-eight finishes in seven appearances in the final major of the year.
The world No 4 was optimistic of turning what he called a B- season into an A+ by claiming his fifth major title on Sunday, but missed from ten feet for birdie on the tenth – his opening hole – and even closer range on the 11th before dropping shots on the 13th and 14th.
A poor tee shot into a greenside bunker on the 16th led to a third bogey of the day and McIlroy was frustrated not to take advantage of the 17th and 18th, the only par fives on the par-70 layout.
McIlroy’s 77 on day three of the Masters in April was his first without a birdie in 80 major championship rounds and another followed as he followed a three-putt bogey on the second by lipping out from four feet on the sixth.
In contrast, Walker had carded six birdies and a solitary bogey in his 65, with Fisher completing his round with birdies on the 17th and 18th and compatriot Andy Sullivan picking up three shots in the last four holes to finish a shot further back.
“I feel like I’ve prepared and I’m ready to go this week,” Walker said. “It’s nice that that’s what showed today. I felt like I was ready to go. Winning a major would be huge but there’s three days to go.
“I had not been making a lot of putts this year. Last weekend and today I felt like I was gaining some momentum and starting to see some go in. So it was nice to keep that rolling today.”
Fisher, whose sole top-ten finish in a major to date came in the 2009 US Open, said: “I struck the ball well all day, especially from the tee, and picking up birdies on 17 and 18 was obviously a lovely way to finish.
“I gave myself a lot of chances and missed very makeable putts for birdie on one and five. But four under to start a major, and with only one bogey on the card, I’ve obviously got to be very happy with that.
“My coach [Denis Pugh] has been banging on to me about keeping my swing nice and smooth, so I had that running through my head today and it’s paid off very nicely.”
Sullivan, who is on course to secure his Ryder Cup debut this season, said: “I’m buzzing with that start. I’ve been playing really well leading up to the tournament, so it’s just nice to keep the form and momentum going.
“It was a great atmosphere out there, the fans were making loads of noise and it was nice to be playing in the group behind Rory, Jason [Day] and Phil [Mickelson], because you could get a good view of the crowds.
“It was a bit of a struggle at times in the heat, especially down the stretch there, so I’m happy to get finished and enjoy some nice air conditioning. It was seriously hot and humid even first thing this morning, so I was seriously melting out there. But I’d take this over the cold and wet we had at the Open any day, so I won’t complain.”