NASSAU – Rory McIlroy has gone from tears at the Ryder Cup to some of his best golf of the year, and right now his only complaint is the calendar.
“I wish it was the end of March,” McIlroy said Thursday after a 6-under 66 to share the lead with Daniel Berger and Abraham Ancer in the Hero World Challenge.
McIlroy was referring to the Masters, the only major keeping him from the career Grand Slam, and there is plenty of golf to be played between now and the first full week of April. But he's been on a roll since spilling his emotions about how much the Ryder Cup means after a rough week at Whistling Straits.
He won the CJ Cup in Las Vegas. He was leading the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai after 68 holes until a bad break led to a sloppy finish and Collin Morikawa passed him by.
And then on a warm and blustery day in the Bahamas, he had six birdies and chipped in for eagle on the reachable par-4 14th for another good start.
It was far from perfect, and he only has to point at a double bogey on the par-5 ninth when he hit his second shot into the water. He failed to birdie two other par 5s, so this wasn't exactly a round where he got the most out of it.
But it was enough to make him slightly wistful the year was coming to and end.
“I wish it was a different time of the year the way I'm playing,” McIlroy said. “But there's no reason why I can't pick up again in January and keep playing the way I'm playing. I'm still going to keep myself ticking over these next few weeks. I'm not going to completely shut the clubs away. ... My game's in good shape and I want to keep it there.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Berger, who hasn't even played since the Ryder Cup. He showed up on the practice range at Albany on Monday, cell phone resting on his bag to play music, striped one drive and proudly announced, “Still got it!”
He was kidding on Monday, not so much on Thursday.
Berger birdied his opening four holes, made an eagle on the par-5 11th and stayed ahead of the 20-man field most of the day until the end. From the 18th fairway, into the wind with water guarding the left side of the green, he missed well to the right, his chip didn't reach the green and he had to make a 5-footer to escape with bogey.
It was the first time every shot counted on his card since Sept. 4 when he closed with 64 at the Tour Championship. There's been a lot of pool time, and more time on the tennis court than the golf course. He played with his father, former Davis Cup player Jay Berger.
“It's probably the longest break I’ve had in my professional career,” he said. “It was a little scary taking over a month off because I haven’t done that in a while, wondering if you’re going to come back and still have it. But mentally and physically, I needed the break.”
Collin Morikawa had a reasonable start in his bid to cap off his year with a win that would take him to No. 1 in the world. He shot 68 with a pair of sloppy 8-iron shots from the fairway that led to bogey. No matter what he does on the course, his year keeps getting better.
The British Open champion got engaged Tuesday night.
“I'm just happy,” he said. “It's going to be a special date for us. It's going to be a great week no matter what.”
Webb Simpson one-putted his last seven greens, five of them for birdie, one for bogey on the 18th after hitting his tee shot into a palmetto bush. He was one shot behind along with Brooks Koepka and Justin Thomas, who suffered a worse fate than Simpson.
Thomas, wearing sunglasses for the first time because of laser surgery on his eyes a few weeks ago, reached 7 under for the round until also taking a penalty shot from the bushes right of the 18th fairway. He failed to get up-and-down and made double bogey.
Koepka played with him and was keeping pace until he bogeyed the 13th, failed to birdie the reachable par-4 14th and the par-5 15th and had to settle for 67.
“Trying to find it, man,” Koepka said. “It feels like the last two years have been a struggle except for the majors or WGCs.”
He left out the whipping he put on Bryson DeChambeau in the made-for-TV match in Las Vegas last week.
“Sometimes when you don’t have it, it feels like you’re never going to get it again,” Koepka said. “But just got to keep going, keep fighting and figure it out.”