PGA Tour BMW Championship: Rory McIlroy’s late charge pulls him into lead with Jon Rahm, Sam Burns as low scores pile up at Caves Valley

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Rory McIlroy had not completed the opening round of a golf tournament in the lead since March, and it did not appear that trend would end Thursday at the PGA Tour’s BMW Championship at Caves Valley Golf Club in Owings Mills.

But after absorbing his first and only bogey on the par-3 13th hole, McIlroy made a birdie on the par-4 15th and an eagle on the par-5 16th to join Sam Burns and defending champion Jon Rahm atop the leaderboard with 8-under-par 64s.

McIlroy, who entered the second leg of the FedEx Cup playoffs ranked No. 16 in the world and No. 28 in the FedEx Cup standings, last owned a share of a lead after the first round March 4, when he tied Corey Connors with a 66 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando, Florida. The 32-year-old native of Northern Ireland has only one victory this year at the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, North Carolina.

McIlroy took advantage of some giving fairways at Caves Valley. He successfully navigated 13 of 14 fairways, which is tied for first in the field, and averaged 318.2 yards off the tee, which is also tied for first.

“I think it lets you hit driver, first and foremost,” he said of the course. “I think there’s a lot of courses we play nowadays where a lot of fairways pinch in at 300, 310. It doesn’t allow the long hitters to hit driver a lot, last week being a pretty good example of that. Whenever you get a big golf course like this that allows the big hitters to hit driver, that’s usually a big advantage. Yeah, it’s just nice to get driver in your hand and be able to feel like you can let it fly a bit.”

McIlroy appeared to be in cruise control after recording six birdies in the first 12 holes Thursday. But he suffered a hiccup on No. 13 with that bogey.

After parring the par-4 No. 14, McIlroy regained three strokes on Nos. 15 and 16 to fortify his confidence.

“I played the par-5s very poorly the last few weeks,” said McIlroy, who has won four major championships but none since 2014. “Even the front nine today, not making birdie on either of the par-5s on the front side, I was sort of thinking, ‘Here we go again.’ It was nice to play the par-5s better on the back.”

Rahm, who captured the BMW Championship when it was played last September at Olympia Fields Country Club in Illinois, and Burns, who made his tournament debut, shot bogey-free rounds.

“It’s a lengthy golf course,” said Rahm, a 26-year-old Arizona State graduate who became the first from his home country of Spain to win the U.S. Open and leads the PGA Tour in top-10 finishes with 13 this year. “You’re going to have a lot of long irons into some of the holes. If you can put it in the fairway when it’s as soft as it is, you can be aggressive. Had a great ball-striking day and made a couple of good putts early on and had it going early and continued the mojo throughout the day.”

Like Rahm, the world’s top-ranked golfer and the No. 2 player in the FedEx Cup standings, Burns, who is ranked No. 25 in the world and No. 12 in FedEx Cup points, drained eight birdies.

“It was nice being able to touch it in the fairway and then just trying to put it in the right spot on the green,” said the 25-year-old Louisiana native, who was 111th in last year’s FedEx Cup standings. “I think that’s the biggest thing around this place is the greens are big, but you can have 20 feet and still have it breaking six feet. So [I am] trying to avoid those areas, give ourselves the easiest putt, and we were able to make them.”

In the PGA Tour’s first return to Baltimore since 1962 when Doug Ford won the last Eastern Open Invitational at Mt. Pleasant Municipal Golf Club, 55 of the top 69 golfers in the FedEx Cup standings (Patrick Reed, who is ranked No. 26 in FedEx Cup points, is absent after being hospitalized with bilateral pneumonia) shot better than par on the Tom Fazio-designed course that had been lengthened from 7,226 yards to 7,542 yards after the construction of eight new championship tee boxes, had all 87 bunkers rebuilt and had its rough grown out in key strategic positions to add a degree of difficulty to the course.

The pros weren’t phased. Thursday’s scoring average of 69.217 was 2.783 strokes under par on average, a first-round tournament record for the BMW Championship.

Sergio Garcia carded a seven-under 65 to take sole possession fourth place. The 41-year-old native of Spain registered four birdies on the front nine and three on the back to overtake Abraham Ancer and Patrick Cantlay, who are tied for fifth at 66.

The top 30 players in the FedEx Cup standings at the end of the weekend will advance to the Tour Championship in Atlanta and compete for a $15 million grand prize.

Finau rides the wave

Tony Finau, whose victory at The Northern Trust on Monday was his first in 1,975 days since the 2016 Puerto Rico Open, is one of 12 players tied for seventh with a 5-under 67. His back nine was a roller-coaster of sorts with three consecutive birdies between Nos. 10 and 12, a bogey and double bogey on Nos. 13 and 14 respectively, and three more birdies between Nos. 15 and 17.

“Hiccups on 13 and 14, not what I was looking for after really just kind of cruising through the round and playing really nicely,” the 31-year-old Utah native said. “But that putt on 15 I thought was huge, to bounce back with a birdie. A great up-and-down on 16 and then a great birdie on 17. I thought par on 18 was important, as well, just to finish off that little stretch.”

It all comes back for Simpson

While many in the field are playing Caves Valley for the first time, 36-year-old Webb Simpson returned to the course for the first time since 2005 when he and his teammates at Wake Forest competed in the NCAA Division I Championship. Despite shooting an opening-round 68, the Demon Deacons were the first team eliminated from contention after 54 holes.

“Feel like I remember the golf course,” said Simpson, who shot an opening-round 67 that included an eagle on the par-4 No. 5, four birdies and one bogey. “It’s certainly longer, but more open maybe. They cut down it seems like a lot of trees. Yeah, I remember it pretty well.”

Forget something?

Xander Schauffele got a big assist from caddie Austin Kaiser after the Olympic gold medalist left his putter behind while using a restroom between the Nos. 10 and 11 holes. Neither noticed the putter was missing until Schauffele, the gold medalist at the Tokyo Olympics, hit his second shot on No. 11. Kaiser had to put on his best Usain Bolt impression to retrieve the club and return it to Schauffele in time for him to putt out on No. 11.

“Yeah, that’s my fault,” said Shauffele, who shot a 67 with six birdies and one bogey. “I went to go use the restroom and left my putter up against the Port-a-John. I thought he grabbed it, which is my fault, and then I didn’t look, which is my fault again, so I had like a triple whammy there. And then he had to run back, and then I missed the putt after, so it was really not a good hole for me.”

BMW Championship

Where: Caves Valley Golf Club, Owings Mills

When: Thursday, Aug. 26 through Sunday, Aug. 29

What: Second leg of PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs

Format: 72-hole stroke-play tournament

Course length: 7,542 yards

Par: 72

TV: NBC (Chs. 11, 7), Golf Channel

Purse: $9,500,000

Field: Top 70 players in FedEx Cup standings. Top 30 advance to Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta (Sept. 2-5)

Last year’s champion: Jon Rahm

LEADERBOARD (THROUGH ROUND 1)

T1. Sam Burns (-8, 64)

T1. Jon Rahm (-8, 64)

T1. Rory McIlroy (-8, 64)

4. Sergio Garcia (-7, 65)

T5. Abraham Ancer (-6, 66)

T5. Patrick Cantlay ( -6, 66)

T7. Harold Varner III (-5, 67)

T7. Webb Simpson (-5, 67)

T7. Dustin Johnson (-5, 67)

T7. Xander Schauffele (-5, 67)

T7. Tony Finau (-5, 67)

T7. Keegan Bradley (-5, 67)

T7. Sebastian Muñoz (-5, 67)

T7. Emiliano Grillo (-5, 67)

T7. Hudson Swafford (-5, 67)

T7. Hideki Matsuyama (-5, 67)

T7. Sungjae Im (-5, 67)

T7. Erik van Rooyen (-5, 67)

T19. Daniel Berger (-4, 68)

T19. Joaquin Niemann (-4, 68)

T19. Cameron Smith (-4, 68)

T19. Ryan Palmer (-4, 68)

T19. Phil Mickelson (-4, 68)

T19. Paul Casey (-4, 68)

T19. Lucas Glover (-4, 68)

T19. Carlos Ortiz (-4, 68)

T19. Bryson DeChambeau (-4, 68)

T19. Justin Thomas (-4, 68)

T29. Aaron Wise (-3, 69)

T29. Tom Hoge (-3, 69)

T29. Stewart Cink (-3, 69)

T29. Charley Hoffman (-3, 69)

T29. Jhonattan Vegas (-3, 69)

T29. Maverick McNealy (-3, 69)

T29. Matt Jones (-3, 69)

T29. Brian Harman (-3, 69)

T29. Marc Leishman (-3, 69)

T29. Kyoung-Hoon Lee (-3, 69)

T29. Harris English (-3, 69)

T29. Mackenzie Hughes (-3, 69)

T29. Patton Kizzire (-3, 69)

T29. Talor Gooch (-3, 69)

T43. Cameron Champ (-2, 70)

T43. Corey Conners (-2, 70)

T43. Viktor Hovland (-2, 70)

T43. Brooks Koepka (-2, 70)

T47. Charl Schwartzel (-1, 71)

T47. Kevin Streelman (-1, 71)

T47. Shane Lowry (-1, 71)

T47. Louis Oosthuizen (-1, 71)

T47. Chris Kirk (-1, 71)

T47. Alex Noren (-1, 71)

T47. Jordan Spieth (-1, 71)

T47. Billy Horschel (-1, 71)

T47. Lee Westwood (-1, 71)

T56. Keith Mitchell (E, 72)

T56. Russell Henley (E, 72)

T56. Max Homa (E, 72)

T56. Kevin Kisner (E, 72)

T56. Harry Higgs (E, 72)

T56. Kevin Na (E, 72)

T56. Collin Morikawa (E, 72)

T63. Robert Streb (+1, 73)

T63. Scottie Scheffler (+1, 73)

T63. Cameron Tringale (+1, 73)

T63. Cameron Davis (+1, 73)

T63. Jason Kokrak (+1, 73)

68. Si Woo Kim (+2, 74)

69. Branden Grace (+3, 75)

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