2022 PGA Championship: Rory McIlroy’s rare hot start revives hopes of his major win potential


TULSA, Okla. – On Wednesday afternoon, after his last practice session of the week, Rory McIlroy asked someone near the clubhouse if he had ever heard of The Gathering Place, a massive multi-million Tulsa park million where parents often take their adventure – looking for children. Thursday morning, after his first round of the 2022 PGA Championship, McIlroy made Southern Hills his personal playground.

McIlroy shot a 5-under 65 to take the clubhouse lead in the second major championship of the year, and he held it at the end of the day. Combined with his 64 in the final round of the Masters, he has now taken 129 shots in the last two major rounds, an impossible number given the difficulty of the two courses. His 64 at Augusta National in April was the best round of the day by three, and that 65 Thursday was the best of the day by one over Will Zalatoris and Tom Hoge.

There’s been a lot of consternation – both internally and externally – over how McIlroy has started major championships in recent years. Since his last major victory at the 2014 PGA Championship, he has found himself constantly playing from behind and needing miracle rounds in the 60s on weekends to have a chance of winning one of the four most important events.

Since early 2015, McIlroy has a differential of 103 shots between his first round and the last three rounds of the majors. That’s a problem because playing catch-up to the Dustin Johnsons, Jordan Spieths, and Collin Morikawas in the world demands perfection, and major championship golf almost always battles perfection.

Early Thursday, as McIlroy departed with the all-odds group of Spieth and Tiger Woods, it looked like that stat was going to continue. Woods birdied the first hole while McIlroy and Spieth parried, and it felt like Woods, who has played four rounds in the last 18 months, would show his partners what a major championship game is supposed to look like. .

McIlroy didn’t start badly, but Woods looked sharp, and it was easy to imagine McIlroy wondering how this dude dragging one leg around the stadium beat him by threes. Woods passed out quickly, however, and Spieth couldn’t locate the putt that has eluded him all season. McIlroy gave them both a show.

One of the great drivers in the history of the sport put on one of his great performances right off the bat in his 53rd major championship. A redesign of the course built to train both intellectually and physically with the best iron players in the world had no guarantees for the aerial assault that McIlroy put on it. He also had no recourse as McIlroy bounced like a kid striding from the monkey bars to the jungle gym.

McIlroy hit 10 of the 14 fairways, which actually isn’t the most impressive part. It’s the fact that he had 10 shots for 325 yards or more. Here they are from longest to shortest.

  • 378 yards
  • 378 yards
  • 369 yards
  • 354 yards
  • 338 yards
  • 337 yards
  • 334 yards
  • 332 yards
  • 327 yards
  • 326 yards
  • 306 yards
  • 306 yards

Even a state known for its highwire offensive football teams was unprepared for that level of firepower. McIlroy also paid off the driver, with good distance control and a hot putter. He played all 18 holes of a major championship on Thursday and did not score worse than four.

“I feel like this course allows you to be pretty aggressive right off the bat if you want to,” McIlroy said after his lap. “So I hit quite a few drivers there and took advantage of my length and finished with a good iron game and good putting.”

The low number at the beginning is significant because it is also about winning. On Tuesday, McIlroy was asked how he reconciled the idea he pitched to Augusta National in April that playing conservatively at the start of majors was the quickest route to winning the fifth of his career. . He smiled as he answered.

“You can’t plan to go out front,” he said. “It’s just something that happens if you play well and get some momentum. You kind of feel it. It’s not like I go with the mindset of those four tournaments of I gonna go out and shoot 65 the first two days and let ’em all come and catch me It kind of happened I think over the last few years what’s kept me from being in the running or being able to winning those majors is the big numbers and kind of shooting me early.”

And yet, the only way for McIlroy to win major championships is to take the lead by pulling something dumb on day one. Conservatism may have held him back in more majors in terms of top-10 rankings, but winning often takes courage early in the week, and McIlroy reflected on the lead he built on Thursday after birdying four of his first six holes . He came out at 31 and worked his way up to 34 on the back, not playing preemptive defense but relying even more on his driver. He averaged 326 yards on his front nine and 337 on his back.

“I think [you’re] just happy when you get off to a good start like that, sometimes you can maybe start being a little cautious or start giving yourself a little more room for error, but I stuck to my game plan,” said he declared. stayed aggressive, hit that rider in 4, took an aggressive line in 5. Yeah, I stayed true to what I was trying to do there, which I was happy with.

In his four major victories — 2011 US Open, 2012 PGA, 2014 Open, 2014 PGA — McIlroy had the lead or was in one after the first round. In three of these events, he opened with 66 or better. It’s the first time since Valhalla in 2014 that he’s shot 66 or better in the first round. Additionally, five of Southern Hills’ seven big winners have gone from thread to thread.

In other words, it’s all coming McIlroy after a round at Southern Hills, as one of the sport’s great leaders is now the heavy favorite to join Byron Nelson, Seve Ballesteros and Peter Thomson in history with five major wins. If he does this week, he will have reached five at a younger age than last year’s champion Phil Mickelson, who won his first.

Rick Gehman and Kyle Porter recap Thursday’s action from Southern Hills. Follow and listen to The First Cut on Apple podcast and Spotify.

Sunday is a long way off. There is plenty of golf to play. Lots of things can happen. These are all platitudes spewed out by everyone at the start of major championship weeks, because it’s safer to be safe than to dream. It hurts less that way. But I think we all know where this is taking us.

McIlroy plays on the kind of clip from which one does not easily descend. If he’s not in the lead before Sunday, he’s going to be somewhere close, and that means Sunday is going to feel heavy as hell. This is what happens when the great generations go eight years without a green box on the Wikipedia page.

As a final peace settled over Southern Hills on Wednesday, McIlroy found himself in the media center just above the wraparound waterslide that feeds the Southern Hills Pool, which looked hugely inviting as the strong Tulsa warmth permeated every nook and cranny of the property. . His wife’s former colleagues rushed to put the finishing touches on their first event, and McIlroy picked up his almost 2-year-old child from inside the building and pointed the banner inside his father’s building from Valhalla almost eight years ago.

He joked that 2014 was back when he was actually dominant in a sport that always seemed so easy for him, and everyone laughed.

Humorous self-mockery always has a tinge of sadness, because self-mockery most often disguises self-preservation, and McIlroy’s real question inside that joke is the same question everyone’s been asking for ever since. a few years. : Will he ever be, at some point, the player he was?

A turn doesn’t provide the answer, of course. But if history means anything, that 65 was at least a clue.

Rory McIlroy hasn’t done many murals in the past eight years, at least not worthy of hanging in the hallways of major championships. But the first 18 holes of this playground reminded him of what it once was, and with nearly a decade of expectation on its shoulders and three laps yet to go, what it could be again.


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