OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. — Rory McIlroy doesn't need fans to keep his head in the game at the BMW Championship. Olympia Fields Country Club is so tough, it won't allow anything but his full attention on every shot.
McIlroy and Patrick Cantlay made their share of mistakes Friday — and shrugged them off, because that's bound to happen on the toughest test the PGA Tour has experienced this year.
By the end of another steamy afternoon south of Chicago, they were the sole survivors under par.
One week after McIlroy admitted to going through the motions without spectators around to provide the cheers, he shot a 1-under-par 69 to share the 36-hole lead with Cantlay (68) at 1-under 139.
It was plenty tough for Tiger Woods, whose 2019-20 PGA Tour season appears to be two rounds from being over.
He didn't have enough good shots to atone for his bad ones, and he had to make a 35-foot par putt on his final hole to shoot a 75, leaving him nine shots behind. Woods was toward the bottom of the pack at a tournament where he needs to finish close to fourth to be among the top 30 in the FedEx Cup standings who advance to the Tour Championship next week at Atlanta's East Lake Golf Club.
Cantlay holed a 50-foot chip for birdie, and he holed out a 50-yard wedge for eagle. He also missed the green on three of the par 3s, the last one leading to a double bogey. He finished with a 6-iron shot out of the thick rough and made a 40-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to match the best score of the round.
He and McIlroy were one shot ahead of Hideki Matsuyama and Dustin Johnson, who were going in opposite directions when it was time to sign their scorecards. Matsuyama, the first-round leader and only player to reach 4 under at any point this week, dropped four shots over his last 10 holes for a 73. Johnson, No. 1 in the FedEx Cup standings and the Official World Golf Ranking after completing a runaway win Sunday in The Northern Trust at TPC Boston, finished birdie-birdie for a 69.
Baylor School graduate Harris English (71), sixth in the FedEx Cup standings, was tied for 39th at 6 over.
The phrase "U.S. Open" is being heard a lot more than "FedEx Cup" this week. Olympia Fields hosted the United States Golf Association's big show 17 years ago, and two weeks after the Tour Championship, this year's rescheduled U.S. Open is set for Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, New York.
"I think the test is what's helped me focus and concentrate, because if you lose focus out there for one second just one lapse in concentration can really cost you around here," McIlroy said. "I think one of the big keys this week is just not making big numbers. If you hit it out of position, get it back in position, make sure that your worst score is bogey and move on. Honestly, bogeys aren't that bad out here."
He made a mistake on the 14th hole by going long and left, and only a great wedge shot to a back pin to put the ball five feet from the cup kept him from a big blunder, even though he missed the par putt. He flirted with trouble later in his round on the fifth hole with a wedge shot from 134 yards that came up 30 yards short with the pin tucked behind a big bunker. He left that in collar short of the green and got up and down for bogey.
Cantlay doesn't expect to hole out twice a round with wedges, and he hopes he can sharpen up his game a little. Still, he loves the idea of having to think and plot his way around the course.
"It's about as stiff of a test as you would want," Cantlay said. "It's very, very difficult, and you have to play from the fairway, and you have to play from below the hole, frankly. The greens have so much slope on them that you really need to be putting uphill. And so if you're in the rough, it gets exponentially harder to do that."
For those playing well — anywhere within a few shots of par in this case — it was an enjoyable challenge. For everyone, regardless of the score, it was a grind.
"I don't know if any rain will matter, really," Kevin Kisner said after a bogey-bogey finish ruined an otherwise good day and gave him a 70, leaving him three shots behind. "I think even par wins the golf tournament."
Doesn't 280 always win the U.S. Open? That's what Arnold Palmer used to say.
And this feels like a U.S. Open.
Go back to Shinnecock Hills two years ago in the U.S. Open to find the last time someone won at over par (Brooks Koepka). Outside of the majors, over par hasn't won since Bruce Lietzke at the Byron Nelson Classic in 1981, the PGA Tour said.
It's a massive change from last weekend, when Johnson won by 11 shots at 30-under 254.
"Last week was fun, too," Johnson said. "But this week is more of a grind, that's for sure. Every single hole out here is difficult. You've got to really be focused on every shot that you hit."
There was a five-way tie for fifth at 1 over: Tony Finau (71), Billy Horschel (71), Louis Oosthuizen (69), Brendon Todd (68) and Adam Scott (69).
Oosthuizen was near the top of the leaderboard despite almost not making it to Olympia Fields at all. His birdie in the dark on his final hole at TPC Boston moved him to No. 70, the last to qualify for the BMW Championship.
"This is the golf course I needed to do what I must do," he said of moving into the top 30. "Look, this can go really south on you quickly. You can shoot 6, 7 over on this golf course very quickly. But if you really stick to it and play middle of the greens and lag those putts, you can make a lot of pars. And you're not going to lose spots if you're making pars."
Right back to it
ROGERS, Ark. — Jackie Stoelting returned from a 14-month maternity break to take a share of the first-round lead in the LPGA Tour's Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
With her mother with her to look after son Baron, the 34-year-old had a bogey-free 7-under 64 — playing her first nine holes in 5-under 30 — to join Sweden's Anna Nordqvist and rookie Esther Lee, a fellow American, atop the leaderboard.
"Didn't really have many expectations, but also have an extremely different perspective on life now that I'm a mom," Stoelting said. "I was pretty much in quarantine the last 11 months with a child."
She played in the first group of the day off the 10th tee at Pinnacle Country Club, giving her the afternoon off and a late start in the second round Saturday.
"I think the great thing with having my child is now in the past I would've sat there and looked at scores and just sat in my room not knowing what to do," Stoelting said. "Now I have a great distraction, and my husband's actually flying in this afternoon."
She made her first tour start since June 2019.
"I would've gone back earlier, but everything with COVID, and flying with a baby just makes things a little bit more difficult," Stoelting said. "I actually played in the Florida Open three weeks ago as a test event just to see if even I was OK mentally, physically being away from my son while I played. I finished third there, so I was like, 'All right!' Literally, the next day I signed up for Arkansas."
Stacy Lewis birdied the last two holes for a 66. The former University of Arkansas player won the 2014 event at Pinnacle, and she won the Ladies Scottish Open two weeks ago for her 13th LPGA Tour title and first since the birth of daughter Chesnee in October 2018.
"Every opportunity I get to play right now is special because I feel like I'm playing well," Lewis said. "Just need rest is kind of the key. But I love it here. I love this golf course. It's unfortunate we don't have the fans this year, but it's still special being here."
Nordqvist, the 33-year-old with two major titles and six other LPGA Tour victories, also opened with a 5-under 30 on the back nine in a bogey-free round.
"Today was really good," Nordqvist said. "I feel like I've done a lot of good things the last couple weeks. It just hasn't really paid off. It's been a little bit disappointing, a little bit frustrating. But had a pretty good talk with my caddie and fiancee the beginning of the week, and I feel like they kept me in it."
Lee is making her sixth start of the season and her LPGA career. She broke 70 for the first time on the tour after missing the cuts in her previous five events in the coronavirus- interrupted season.
"It's been hard to find a rhythm for tournament golf," Lee said. "I've definitely struggled the first few back. It's nice that when everyone was in Scotland for two weeks, I was just at home and just kind of took a breather. Just kind of reexamined everything, and seems to be working well so far."
Six players were tied for fourth, and five more were within two shots of the lead.
Walters' lead trimmed
BIRMINGHAM, England — South African golfer Justin Walters shot a 1-under 71 to stay in the lead after the second round of the U.K. Championship.
On a rainy day at the Belfry, Walters was unable to follow up his 64 in the opening round, and his advantage in the European Tour event went from three strokes to one.
An impressive par save on the last hole moved him to 9-under 135 overall, just ahead of France's Benjamin Hebert (69). England's Paul Waring was a shot further back after a 67.