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McIlroy ‘over the moon’ to be near top of leaderboard with bad back

ATLANTA – For just the third time in his last 16 trips around East Lake, Rory McIlroy failed to post a round in the 60s. However, considering he started the week literally on his back, his even-par 70 felt like progress.

McIlroy tweaked a muscle in his lower back on Tuesday and said that 24 hours before his first-round tee time at the Tour Championship he “couldn’t address the ball.” It put his four-bogey effort on Thursday in context.

“To get to where I am today is good,” McIlroy said. “The fact that I’m only going to be, whatever it’s going to be, like, three or four off the lead, I’m over the moon about.”

McIlroy is at 7 under and tied for seventh at the event that uses a starting strokes scoring format based on each player’s position on the FedExCup points list. That was just three shots off the lead held by Collin Morikawa, Keegan Bradley and Viktor Hovland, last week’s winner at the BMW Championship.

McIlroy wasn’t able to practice because of the back spasms, which he said were the byproduct of tightness he normally gets late in the season or when he plays consecutive weeks.

“My right side always gets pretty tight, my rib cage, intercostals, lats, like, all the way down, right hip,” he said. “On Tuesday morning I felt a little tight, and I went into my gym at home, and I just sort of foam-rolled and stretched. I went to grab something and my whole right side just completely seized up, spasm.”

The three-time Tour Championship winner arrived at East Lake more than six hours before his first-round tee time for treatment and an ice bath. He went to the range briefly to test his back before going back for more treatment.

“I hit 20 wedges by 10 a.m. which is the first balls I’ve hit since [last week’s BMW Championship]. I felt OK, so then just thought I would give it a go,” McIlroy said. “I was always going to tee off. It was just a matter of how I felt on the course.”

McIlroy went through his normal warm-up but was clearly uncomfortable and not as explosive as normal. That wasn’t the case on the course with ball speeds off the tee around 180 to 182 mph, which were only slightly less than his season average (183 mph). He finished the day 10th in the field in driving distance (315.9-yard average) and ninth in strokes gained: off the tee.

Thursday’s temperatures, which climbed into the high 90s, helped McIlroy’s back during the round but he admitted there wasn’t much improvement.

“It got progressively a little tighter as I went, but it will hopefully get loosened up here and just another 20 or 18 hours of recovery and go again tomorrow,” McIlroy said.

McIlroy has finished outside the top 10 just twice in nine starts at the Tour’s finale and he’s 2-for-4 since the circuit moved to the starting strokes and winner-take-all format, which awards FedExCup bonuses based on a player’s finish at East Lake. If he was forced to withdraw with an injury, McIlroy would drop to 30th on the final points list, which comes with a $500,000 bonus compared to $18 million for this week’s winner.