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


PGA Championship 2022: Rory McIlroy's rare hot start reignites hopes of his big win potential

TULSA, Oklahoma — On Wednesday afternoon, after his final practice session of the week, Rory McIlroy asked someone near the clubhouse if they had ever heard of The Gathering Place, a massive multi-million dollar park in Tulsa where parents often go experience their adventure -seeking children. On Thursday morning, following 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 until the end of the day. Combined with his 64 in the final round of the Masters, he has now hit 129 in the last two major rounds, an impossible number given the difficulty of both courses. His 64 at the Augusta National in April was the best round of the day with three, and Thursday’s 65 was the best of the day by a margin over Will Zlatoris and Tom Hoge.

There has been much dismay – both internal and external – at the way McIlroy has launched major championships in recent years. Ever since his last big win at the PGA Championship in 2014, he’s been consistently playing from behind, needing miracle rounds in the low 60s over the weekend to stand a chance of winning one of the four major events.

Since early 2015, McIlroy has a 103-shot difference between his first round and his last three rounds at majors. That’s a problem, because catching up against the Dustin Johnsons, Jordan Spieths and Collin Morikawas in the world requires perfection, and golf at major championships almost always battles perfection.

When McIlroy teeted off with the all-ratings group Spieth and Tiger Woods early Thursday night, it looked like that statistic would stick. Woods shagged the first hole while McIlroy and Spieth saved and there was a feeling that Woods, who has played four rounds in the last 18 months, would show his partners what big championship games should be like.

McIlroy didn’t start badly, but Woods looked sharp, and it was easy to imagine McIlroy wondering how this guy dragging a leg around the ballpark beat him by three. However, Woods quickly faded and Spieth couldn’t locate the putting stroke that had eluded him all season. McIlroy gave them both a show.

One of the greatest drivers in the history of the sport turned in one of his great performances from the tee in his 53rd major championship. A redesigned course, designed to rival both intellectually and physically with the best iron players in the world, had no protection from the air attack McIlroy used on it. It also had no recourse as McIlroy hopped around the place like a kid trudging from monkey bars to monkey bars.

McIlroy hit 10 of 14 fairways, which is actually not the most impressive part. That was the fact that he hit 10 drives from 325 yards or more. Here they are from longest to shortest.

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

Even a state known for its attacking high-wire football teams was unprepared that level of firepower. McIlroy also paid off the driver with good distance control and a hot putter. He played all 18 holes in a major championship on Thursday and never went worse than a single score of four.

“I feel like this course lets you get pretty aggressive off the tee if that’s what you want,” McIlroy said after his round. “So I met quite a few riders out there and used my length and ended that with a nice play of iron and a nice putt.”

The early low number is also significant in terms of winning. On Tuesday, McIlroy was asked how he reconciled the idea he pitched at Augusta National in April that playing conservative early in major championships was the quickest way to win the fifth of his career. He smiled as he answered.

“You can’t plan to go ahead,” he said. “That just happens when you play well and get some momentum. You can feel it somehow. It’s not like I went out into those four tournaments with the attitude that I’m going to go out and shoot the first 65 in two days and let them all come and catch me. It just happened. I think the things that have kept me from competing or winning these majors over the past few years are big numbers and kicking myself out of it pretty early on.”

And yet McIlroy has only won major championships from scratch by shooting something stupid on day one. Conservatism may have held him in more majors in terms of ticking off the top 10, but winning often takes some guts early in the week, and McIlroy leaned into the lead he built Thursday after birdies on four of his first six holes. He went out in 31 and scraped his way to 34 at the back, not by playing defense but by leaning even more heavily on his driver. He averaged 326 yards on his front nine and 337 yards on his back.

“I think [you’re] I’m just happy when you get off to such a good start. Sometimes you might start to be a little cautious or give yourself a little more room for error, but I stuck to my game plan,” he said. “I stayed aggressive, beat that driver in 4th place, took an aggressive line at #5. Yes, I stuck with what I was trying to do out there, which I was happy with.

In all four of his major wins – US Open 2011, PGA 2012, Open 2014, PGA 2014 – McIlroy was either in the lead or in the lead after Round 1. At three of these events, he opened at 66 or better. This is the first time he’s shot 66 or more in the first round since Valhalla in 2014. Additionally, five of the seven grand prize winners have walked wire to wire in Southern Hills.

In other words, after a round at Southern Hills it’s all coming down to McIlroy as one of the sport’s great frontrunners is now the big favorite to join Byron Nelson, Seve Ballesteros and Peter Thomson in five big win history. If he does so this week, he will be five years old and younger 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 Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

But Sunday is still far away. There is plenty of golf to play. Lots of things can happen. These are all platitudes spread by everyone at the start of the big championship weeks because it’s safer to be cautious than to dream. It hurts less that way. But I think we all know where this is going.

McIlroy plays with the kind of clip that’s hard to get off. If he’s not leading on Sunday he’ll be somewhere around and that means Sunday is going to feel tough as hell. This is what happens when generation sizes go eight years without a green box on the Wikipedia page.

On Wednesday, as a final calm settled over Southern Hills, McIlroy found himself in the press center, perched just above the wraparound waterslide that empties into Southern Hills’ pool, which looked extremely inviting as the intense Tulsa heat everyone Penetrated every nook and cranny of the property. His wife’s old colleagues rushed to put the finishing touches on their premiere event and McIlroy met his almost 2-year-old at the building and pointed to the banner at their 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 to him, and everyone laughed.

There’s always a touch of sadness in humorous self-mockery, because self-mockery actually mostly disguises self-preservation, and McIlroy’s real question in this joke is the same question everyone else has been asking themselves for the last few years : Will he ever be the player he was again?

Of course, one lap does not provide the answer. But if history means anything at all, this 65 was at least a clue.

Rory McIlroy hasn’t done many murals in the last eight years, at least none worthy of hanging indoors at major championships. But the first 18 holes on this playground were a reminder of what he once was, and with nearly a decade of expectations on his shoulders and three rounds ahead of him, what he could be again.

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