Rory McIlroy turns in strong start in Memphis

MEMPHIS, TENN. (AP) - Rory McIlroy came to Tennessee to compete and hone his game into shape before defending his U.S. Open title next week. Now he has put himself into position to do something he hasn’t done in a month.

Play on the weekend.

McIlroy shot a 2-under 68 Thursday in the opening round of the St. Jude Classic, putting him two strokes behind leaders Jeff Maggert and John Merrick. It’s his lowest opening round since he shot a 66 in March on his way to winning The Honda Classic. If he can follow that up Friday, he should keep playing after missing three straight cuts including at Memorial last week.

“I think it’s great just to get another competitive round,” McIlroy said. “You want to feel like I played pretty well. I feel like it could’ve been much better. That set me up hopefully a good few days, and it would be great to get myself into contention at this tournament and give me a lot of confidence going into next week.”

He couldn’t have been grouped with much better playing partners for the first two rounds in an all-Irish threesome. McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champ, are from Northern Ireland, and Padraig Harrington from Ireland.

McIlroy needed only 25 putts as he carded four birdies with two bogeys, including a disappointing approach shot into the water greenside on the par-5 No. 3. But the man who spent last weekend working on his game at The Olympic Club in San Francisco to prepare for the U.S. Open said he really felt comfortable driving the ball at the TPC Southwind course.

“That’s something I’ve been working on the last couple weeks so that’s coming around,” said McIlroy, who hit six of 14 fairways Thursday. “As long as I can get the ball in the fairway, that gives me the opportunity to get it close to the pin and I’m pleased with that point.”

S.Y. Noh, Arjun Atwal, Jeff Overton and J.J. Henry were a stroke back.

McIlroy was tied in a group that included Harrington, Y.E. Yang and John Daly.

Golfers are used to playing through wind and muggy heat in Memphis. A front that kept the temperature a very comfortable 82 Thursday brought winds in from the north, and that created challenges most of the day when many expected good scoring conditions.

“It’s gusting a bit, but it’s definitely from an unusual direction,” Harrington said.

“And anybody who has played over the past number of years, it’s playing a different golf course. On 9 there, I’m hitting driver off the tee. I normally hit 5-wood off the tee. There’s a lot of holes to have changed like that out there. Some are much tougher, and some are a little easier.”

Maggert won on this course in 2006. He took advantage of teeing off in the first group with calm conditions for the first seven holes, and finished with four birdies, an eagle and two bogeys. Merrick matched his best round of the year with six birdies and two bogeys, the last on No. 18 when his tee shot went into the water to drop him back into a tie for the lead.

“Had a loose shot there on 18, but you know … can’t hit every shot perfect out there,” Merrick said. “So, I was really happy with today.”

Maggert is playing his 16th event this year after having shoulder surgery last June and earned his way back on tour at the qualifying tournament. He tied for 13th at the Sony Open and fifth in the Humana Challenge in January but has missed nine cuts.

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