South African Charl Schwartzel is known as a pure ball striker, but he’s had a lumberjack’s touch with the putter this year and showed up at the Memorial tournament desperate for answers.
He spent much time over two days implementing tips from his Presidents Cup captain, Nick Price, and vice-captain Mark McNulty — and then tore up the marble-like greens at Muirfield Village by largely ignoring their advice.
Schwartzel, who had been placing his right index finger down the shaft of the putter, was told to move the ball forward and try a conventional grip. He was committed to the changes until needing three swipes to find the cup from five feet on his fourth hole.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to do what they say and go back to a normal grip.’ And it just didn’t feel very comfortable. It felt really shaky,” he said. “I switched back to my finger down the shaft — and sort of changed the ball position like Mark said — and that felt comfortable. As you know, putting is all about comfort.”
The former Masters champion took the first-round lead by making 10 birdies on his way to a 7-under-par 65. He leads Scott Piercy by one, while four others are two shots back.
Defending champion Tiger Woods shot a 71 after bogeying the 18th. Fred Couples, who asked to be paired with Woods, had the best score in the threesome with a 70.
Gary Player, the 77-year-old hall-of-famer, introduced golf to a generation of South African players, just not Schwartzel’s generation. Ernie Els and Reteif Goosen were trailblazers to Schwartzel and 2010 British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen, who are now inspiring others.
South Africa has seven golfers ranked among the top 54 players in the world.
“I always think you look up to your idols, and you sort of set your bar to where you want to get to,” Schwartzel said. “Ernie and Retief set it so high for so long, and maybe with myself and Louis winning majors and competing a bit, more guys like George (Coetzee) and Branden (Grace) set the bar toward us.”
Schwartzel has never finished higher than a tie for 19th in five starts at the Memorial, and he wants to finish the week with good vibes about Muirfield Village since it will host the Presidents Cup in October.
“You can get on a roll on a golf course like this where you can play and not make any birdies,” he said. “At least now, when you’ve made a few, you can feel like they’re out there.”
That sensation has eluded the world’s second-ranked player all year. Rory McIlroy had a first-nine 40 and carded a 78.
After winning the PGA Championship and being named the tour’s player of the year in 2012, McIlroy is winless in 11 starts worldwide and seldom has contended.
“The last four weeks have been the same,” McIlroy said. “I’ve missed a lot of short putts. It’s probably lack of confidence more than anything else.”
He four-putted for double-bogey on No. 12 and missed a four-footer for birdie on his last hole.
“That’s sort of how it’s been,” he said. “The game just isn’t all there at the minute.”
Woods failed to take advantage of the par-5s, playing them in even par. Asked about his pairing with the 53-year-old Couples, he laughed and said, “He kicked my (butt).”
Although the two are good friends, Couples had second thoughts after requesting the pairing with Woods, feeling a bit rusty. But he decided, “It might be my last time playing with Tiger.”
The captain of the USA Presidents Cup team added: “My goal when I play with him is to try to hit it solid and stay out of his way, and today was a good one.”
Impulse buy: Most PGA players have custom-made clubs, but K.J. Choi is going with the store-bought kind this week.
Fed up with his play of late, he went to Golf Galaxy in Columbus on Monday and bought a set of Mizuni irons. After practicing with them Tuesday and Wednesday, he shot an opening-round 72.
No state loyalty: Josh Teater, who had a 67, was born and bred in Kentucky and is a rabid UK basketball fan. Asked if he took any satisfaction in Louisville’s win the NCAA tournament this year, he cracked, “Louisville’s in Indiana.”
Backing off: Piercy, known as one of the tour’s bombers, hit a driver only twice. He said he learned while being paired with Woods at the Masters that he doesn’t have to try to overpower courses.
“I’ve hit a lot of drivers and kind of pounded down golf courses, and I haven’t had much success here doing it,” he said. “I thought I’d hit a lot of 3-woods and open up the fairways and allow me to get to some pins. … Maybe I’m getting older.”