Rory McIlroy charged out of the gate at the 2022 PGA Championship like his thoroughbred days of old, carding seven birdies en route to an opening round of 5-under 65 for a one-shot lead over Will Zalatoris and Tom Hoge. The 2017 PGA Champion Justin Thomas shot a 3-under 67 and is two shots back, along with Abraham Ancer and Matt Kuchar.
Starting on the back nine, McIlroy birdied Nos. 12-15 -- two of the most fearsome par 4s in American golf (12 and 15) sandwich a brutally long par 3 and a gargantuan 632-yard par-5. After making the turn, Rory got as low as 6 under before bogeying the sixth and eighth holes. McIlroy finished the round by rolling in a twisting 18-footer at the last hole to earn a lead that held up throughout the afternoon wave of play.
Interestingly, in his insightful pre-tournament press conference, McIlroy highlighted that getting off to a fast start had been integral in his other major championship wins, but it had been close to eight years since he had been his old dominant self, at least at a major.
“I think over the past few years, the things that have stopped me from getting in contention or being able to win these majors is big numbers and shooting myself out of it sort of early,” McIlroy explained on Tuesday. “I can even think back to Augusta, I finished three behind in the end, and I went bogey, double bogey on 10 and 11. On Friday. You go par-par there and all of a sudden there's those three shots. It doesn't take much in major championships to -- it's tiny margins.”
Rory went on to explain that he was going to play more conservatively and let other players make the mistakes.
Then, game plan be damned, he went out and bludgeoned the back nine into submission. His average driving distance yesterday was a downright brobdingnagian 373.6 yards. Better still, he hit 10 of 14 fairways -- no easy task around cunningly designed Southern Hills.
McIlroy turning back the clock to the days of his first U.S. Open or PGA Championship wins, where he carded 65s and ran away and hid from everyone all week, had the attention of news conference moderator Julius Mason of the PGA of America.
Julius to Rory: Was that the quick start you were looking for?
Rory to Julius: No, no, I’d rather shoot 74 and try to make the cut tomorrow.
Once the smattering of chuckling died down, it turns out that despite his pre-tournament assurances, keeping his foot firmly on the gas all day was the key.
“I stayed aggressive, hit that driver up 4, took an aggressive line on 5. Yeah, I stuck to what I was trying to do out there, which I was pleased with,” he admitted. “Then if anything, obviously the two bogeys on the par-3s on the front nine, but it's very easy to make bogeys out here. You get yourself just a little bit out of position, you catch a little bit of grain around the green, it's tricky. I didn't encounter too many of those tricky scenarios today, but it can certainly be tricky. You get yourself out of position here, you just try to make a 4 or a par and run to the next.”
Those two bogeys were caused by loose iron shots that missed the green badly, leaving him dicey, dangerous chips to fiendishly intricate greens. Things can pile up in a hurry at Southern Hills, especially with all the greenside nuances Gil Hanse added during his renovation. Back-to-back PGA champion Brooks Koepka found that out the hard way bogeying holes one, three, five, eight and nine en route to a 75.
Indeed, those two iron shots at six and eight were the only blemish on McIlroy’s otherwise sterling round. He’ll need to tidy up that part of his game in order to sustain this lead all the way to Sunday afternoon. With improved player fitness and strength, modern equipment, and dozens of players who begin the tournament with a legitimate chance to win, sometimes it takes four rounds in the 60s to win a major now. Thursday is just “getting to know you,” and Southern Hills will only get tougher as the wind kicks up and the course gets faster and firmer.
Still, 65 is the great start you want at a major. Moreover, it had to be particularly satisfying to do it in front of Tiger Woods and the corresponding avalanche of fans that follow his every step. Woods got to 2 under early, but then began a slow descent into the deep nether-reaches of the scoreboard. Woods finished at 4 over and is in serious danger of missing the cut.
“It's different playing with him here than it is, say, at East Lake, because East Lake feels so claustrophobic, the crowds are so much more on top of you,” McIlroy noted. “Here it's big wide corridors. I feel like there's a lot of room, so it doesn't feel as oppressive as some other venues. It's sort of nice that -- I was looking forward to the draw anyway. It's always a cool group to be a part of.”
You can easily forgive everyone’s enthusiasm for the moment. McIlroy’s loved wherever he goes. (Even in the Ryder Cup, where he’s been a Yankee Killer time and time again.) This could be the week he's been waiting for since 2014. Judging from the tumultuous cheers out at Southern Hills, it sounds like the fans would welcome it too.