Rory McIlroy, Cam Smith make the most of what could have been an awkward pairing at East Lake

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ATLANTA — Two days after Cameron Smith won the 150th Open Championship at St. Andrews, he fielded a call from Rory McIlroy. The Northern Irishman, who finished third behind Smith at the Old Course, had watched him being quizzed by a reporter in his victorious press conference about whether the Australian would join LIV Golf at the end of the PGA Tour season.

“I was in London and Cam was at home in Florida, and so I gave him a call,” McIlroy said on Thursday at East Lake Golf Club. “I just wanted to tell him what was in the pipeline in terms of these changes to the PGA Tour’s schedule. Regardless of the decision he makes, I wanted him to have all the information.”

A month later, Smith and McIlroy were paired together for the opening round of the Tour Championship. Since the Open, the reports that World No. 2 Smith will join the rival circuit after the FedEx Cup finale have only grown. At the FedEx Cup Playoffs opener in Memphis, Smith reiterated his focus was on the PGA Tour’s postseason when asked about LIV Golf speculation.

Whether the subject of a rival tour or the PGA Tour’s big plans that were revealed this week came up during Smith and McIlroy’s matching 67s on Thursday, we don’t know. But the pair chatted like old friends frequently throughout the round, which left them at seven under par and eight shots back of runaway leader Scottie Scheffler. Scheffler leads Xander Schauffele (66) by five, with U.S. Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick (64) six behind.

“It was business as usual; Cam and I get on really well and we always have,” McIlroy said. “Again, no matter what decisions are made or what choices are made by anyone, it doesn’t make them a bad person. Does it make me disagree with them? Of course it does. But I disagree with a lot of people that I like and love. If anything, he’s a really good guy to play with because he plays pretty quick, and he has a nice rhythm. So it’s a nice pairing.”

McIlroy, a four-time major winner, certainly needed a nice pairing to help him overcome a horror start. He hit his opening drive out of bounds left en route to a triple bogey. He then bogeyed the par-3 second to be four over through two holes. A cell of rain also dumped on East Lake as McIlroy and Smith played the first.

“It was obviously the weather,” McIlroy joked of the terrible start. “I tried to hit this little guide-y cut into the [first] fairway. Body stopped, double-crossed it.”

But McIlroy then went seven under in his next 16 holes to avoid ruling himself out of winning a third Tour Championship and FedEx Cup title. A holed pitch shot for eagle at the par-5 sixth and four birdies in his last five holes were highlights in a truly bizarre round.

“There’s a lesson in there somewhere; even when you’re not sure about what you’re trying to do, going full send for me is the best way forward,” he said. “I felt like I played myself out of the tournament the first few holes, and then I feel like I played myself back into the tournament the last few holes.”

Smith’s 67 was a little more conventional. Like McIlroy, he bogeyed the second and eagled the sixth, before a back nine featuring four birdies and two bogeys.

Smith’s hip injury—an inflamed sciatic nerve that forced his withdrawal from last week’s BMW Championship—plagued him all 18 holes. He appeared to tweak it during an impressive 229-yard 3-wood out of the fairway bunker on the sixth. He walked gingerly up the fairway but still made the eight-foot eagle putt.

“It’s just annoying to be honest. It’s not like my leg’s going to fall off or there are shooting pains up to my head,” said Smith, who has three PGA Tour wins this season. “When it feels spongey like that it puts more stress on the hip. That’s the first time in a long time where I felt it’s affected my golf. I felt I left a lot of shots out there to the right.”

Smith and McIlroy are a long way back of Scheffler, but so are the other 28 players at East Lake. While the golf world probably wants the FedEx Cup race to remain a little tighter over the next three days, Scheffler doesn’t. He is trying to ice a remarkable season that is looking likely to deliver $32 million in on-course earnings alone. The 26-year-old Texan has already won $14 million thanks to four PGA Tour wins, although the Masters in April was his most recent victory.

“It would definitely be the icing on the cake for the year,” the World No. 1 said after his round. “I’ve played some tremendous golf this year at times. Overall, I’ve had what I feel like is a great year. I’ll just going to try and keep it rolling this week.”

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