Rory McIlroy felt muscle spasms in his lower back before arriving at East Lake for the FedEx Cup finale, bad timing for an injury as he tries to chase an $18 million bonus at the Tour Championship with the Ryder Cup a month away.
He still found reason to celebrate Thursday — he made it to the first tee, completed the first round of the Tour Championship at even-par 70 and still was only three shots behind.
“I hung in there and I just felt like if I could get through today, it’s better than it was yesterday, hopefully tomorrow’s better than it was today, and just sort of try to keep progressing,” McIlroy told a PGA Tour representative.
He declined interviews so he could get to an ice bath.
As for only being three shots behind, McIlroy said he was “over the moon.”
But there was genuine concern before he even teed off because of the muscle spams.
He was home in Florida on Tuesday when he felt tightness from his right rib cage all the way down to the hip, a product of playing a lot of golf this time of year. He spent two hours with his physical therapist and flew to Atlanta, had treatment Wednesday and then headed to the gym.
“I was at the bottom of a body-weight squat and my whole lower back spasmed, seized up,” he said. “I couldn’t move. I honestly couldn’t address the ball this time yesterday. So to get to where I am today is good.”
McIlroy hit 20 shots with a wedge Thursday — hit first time hitting balls since Sunday at the BMW Championship — and was on his way. He never considered withdrawing, rather it was a matter of how he felt on the course.
McIlroy was told upon teeing off that he could get therapy during the round provided it did not cause undue delay. His physical therapist walked outside the ropes on the front nine, but McIlroy indicated that he did not need him.
But whatever the extent of the injury, its effect was obvious. McIlroy rarely finished his swing and twice dropped the club after following through on the front nine.
McIlroy didn’t make his first birdie until the 10th hole, only to miss long and left in gnarly rough on the par-3 11th for another bogey that dropped him to 2 over for the day, eight shots out of the lead. He made three more birdies, and then made bogey on the par-5 closing hole after going bunker-to-bunker around the green.
Sponsored: Unlock Perfect Sleep With Your TONGUE?
To be only three behind required some help, and McIlroy is used to that. He has won three FedEx Cup titles, the most of anyone since it began in 2007, and all three times had to rally on the final day. This time, Scottie Scheffler helped him out.
Scheffler is the No. 1 seed and started the tournament at 10-under par. McIlroy, the No. 3 seed, began at 7 under. Scheffler stretched his lead to five shots at one point only to take a triple bogey on the par-3 15th.
Collin Morikawa shot 61 and was tied at 10-under with Keegan Bradley (63) and BMW Championship winner Viktor Hovland (68).
McIlroy plans to play the Irish Open in two weeks, followed by the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth on the European tour. The Ryder Cup is the week of Sept. 25-Oct. 1 at Marco Simone outside Rome.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.