Schwartzel hit the ball so consistently well at Muirfield Village that the former Masters champion twice had stretches of four straight birdies. And when he made a double bogey with an 8-iron in hand and his ball on a tee toward the end of the round, he got rid of that bad taste with one last birdie for a 7-under 65.
Schwartzel had a one-shot lead over Scott Piercy, who went from smashing it to playing it safe, and he was six shots clear of five-time winner Tiger Woods.
Woods hit the ball well enough to be much closer, though he missed too many birdie chances and didn’t make up any ground on the par 5s.
“That’s probably the highest score I could have shot,” Woods said after his 1-under 71.
Woods was one shot worse than 53-year-old Fred Couples, the Presidents Cup captain at Muirfield Village this fall, and one shot better than 14-year-old Guan Tianlang, who has played more PGA Tour events than Woods over the last two months.
Rory McIlroy, meanwhile, might be headed for another short week at the tournament Jack Nicklaus built. After opening with a birdie, McIlroy didn’t putt nearly well enough to atone for some loose shots.
McIlroy four-putted the par-3 12th for a double bogey, had a three-putt bogey on No. 7 and ended his round by missing a 4-foot birdie putt. That gave him a 78
“I don’t really have many explanations for this,” McIlroy said.
Schwartzel played in the morning, when the slick greens were still smooth, and he made 10 birdies in his round. Most of them were in the 10-foot range, though he picked up a bonus with a 25-foot putt down a slight ridge on the 16th. As well as he played, he thought a great round might turn into just a good one with one swing.
His 8-iron on the par-3 eighth hole drifted right and caught the downward slope of a bunker. The South African tried to put a little more spin on the difficult shot and wound up sending it over the green. He chipped past the hole to about 8 feet and missed that to take double bogey.
What saved him was a 12-foot birdie putt down the hill on his final hole, allowing him to leave the course with a smile. That’s not to suggest that if he had made par on the last hole he would have been ready to retire from the game.
“It would still be OK,” Schwartzel said. “It’s really when you’ve played that well and you’re thinking you get these few rounds a year where you really strike it well and you’re making lots of birdies and you walk off with your 8, 9 under. And (Thursday) was one of those where I really did flush it. And you’re think maybe another birdie, and then get knocked back with a little 8-iron making double.”
Woods, trying to win five times before the U.S. Open for the first time in his PGA Tour career, looked as though he might get much closer to the lead despite having to lay up on both par 5s on the front nine and failing to make birdie.
He hit 5-wood into about 25 feet for a two-putt birdie on the par-5 11th, and then spent the last few hours giving away shots. He made bogey from the back bunker on the par-3 12th, missed a 6-foot birdie putt on the 13th, and chopped up the par-5 15th despite getting a break off the tee when his ball hit a tree and went back into the fairway. He still had to lay up, but a simple wedge went some 40 feet long to the back collar, and Woods had to make a 5-foot putt just to save bogey.
“Didn’t capitalize on a few opportunities I had,” Woods said. “Short irons, I didn’t hit them close enough. All in all, it was a pretty high score.”
It wasn’t nearly as high as what Nick Watney (82) and Nicolas Colsaerts (80) had on their cards. Woods plays in the morning for the second round and should be able to at least get closer to the top going into the weekend.
Bill Haas and Matt Kuchar each had a 68, the best score of the afternoon.
Piercy is one of the longer hitters on tour, so it would seem his game would be a good fit for the Memorial. He hasn’t had much luck, so he decided to scale back off the tee and used 3-wood where he typically would hit driver to take it over the bunkers. Piercy had a 66, his best score in 10 rounds at Muirfield Village.
Josh Teater, Russell Henley and Kyle Stanley were at 67, while Charlie Wi, Matt Jones and Michael Thompson shot 69.
Piercy hit one of the longest drives on the 18th hole last year, leaving him a flip wedge to the green. Muirfield Village is a big golf course, with some of the widest fairways on tour and thick rough — it should be thick for fairways that generous. But hitting driver never really worked for Piercy, so he decided to go with 3-wood, and he stuck with his plan. He still had relatively short irons into the green, and he knew he was onto something when he ran off five straight birdies on the front nine.
“I thought I’d hit a lot of 3-woods (Thursday) and open up the fairways and allow me to get at some pins and knock them on the greens and make some putts,” he said. “Maybe I’m getting older.”
His 3-wood still goes plenty far. Piercy cut off a quarter-inch from the shaft, and found he was hitting it about 290 yards.
Couples, meanwhile, was pleasantly surprised by his round of 70, mainly because he had a great round on the greens, taking 25 putts and making a couple of 8- to 10-foot par putts look easy. Then again, Couples plays with such a silky rhythm that he rarely looks stressed.
He enjoys playing with Woods, and the bonus was having former PGA champion Keegan Bradley in the group. He had never played with Bradley and had no idea he hit the ball with such power. Bradley hit consecutive tee shots on the 10th and 11th holes close to 350 yards, leaving him a 6-iron into the par-5 11th.
“Most guys lay up with a 6-iron,” Couples said.
Even so, Bradley could do no better than 71, not a bad start for an afternoon round.