Rory McIlroy, seven long years since his last major championship triumph, ignited hopes of glory at the game’s highest level once more with a gutsy five-under par 65 on the opening of the PGA Championship in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
McIlroy entered the Southern Hills clubhouse leading by one shot from the American pair of Will Zalatoris and Tom Hoge, who each posted 66s in increasingly windy conditions on the Southern Hills course.
McIlroy’s score was his lowest PGA Championship opener since a first round 66 on route to victory at the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla in Kentucky. It was also the first occasion that McIlroy has broken 70 on the opening day of the PGA Championship since that 2014 win in near darkness in suburban Louisville.
The current World No. 7 easily upstaged playing partners Tiger Woods, who was clearly struggling with his leg in posting a 76, and Jordan Speith, who signed for a 72 just four days after the Texan finished runner-up at 25-under in the birdie blitz that was the AT&T Bryon Nelson.
McIlroy’s superbly capped a 51st round in his 14th PGA Championship with four birdies in succession from his third hole or the 12th on the scorecard, and then played his inward nine, the first nine on the ‘card, in posting three further birdies but also a pair of bogeys.
“It was a great start to the tournament,” said McIlroy. “I’ve been playing well coming in here. I’ve been carrying some good form. Obviously, I took a lot from that last round at Augusta, played well up in D.C. at the Wells Fargo there, and played well in the practice rounds earlier this week.
“I think when your game is feeling like that, it’s just a matter of going out there and really sticking to your game plan, executing as well as you possibly can, and just sort of staying in your own little world. I did that really well today. It was nice to get off to that good start and sorta keep it going.
“I feel like this course, it lets you be pretty aggressive off the tee if you want to be, so I hit quite a lot of drivers out there and took advantage of my length and finished that off with some nice iron play and some nice putting”.
There was a rare first in the men’s majors with a woman handling the first tee shot introductions, and introducing McIlroy saying: “Now on the tee, please welcome from Northern Ireland, Rory McIlroy”.
And McIlroy got the start he so dearly longed for, forging his way to the front with four birdies on the trot – holing respective putts of two-feet at the par-4, 12th; two-putting for a ‘4’, the long par-5 13th hole; holing a 27-foot bomb for birdie at the par-3 14th and then a nine-footer for birdie at the next, the par-4 15th.
“I am just happy. When you get off to a good start like that, as sometimes you can maybe start to be a little careful or start to give yourself a little more margin for error, but I stuck to my game plan”, he added.
“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.
“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”.
Woods, contesting only his second event of the new season, had been two-under after five holes but that proved the high water mark of his round, ahead of ending just outside the top-100 as the afternoon half of the field took to the now windier Tulsa course.
Indeed, the 15-time major champ struggled for most of the day and appeared to be in pain following a tee shot on the par-3 eighth, but he finished the rest of the round. He ended the round by hitting a tree off the tee, leaving 190 yards to the green on the final hole.
“My leg is not feeling as good as I’d like it to be,” Woods said.
Spieth also had some struggles on the course Thursday but finished 2-over 72. He couldn’t make a putt early in the round but had a nice putt at the last hole to end the day with a par.
Also there was no joy for 2008 PGA winner Padraig Harrington in signing for a disappointing seven-over 77, and staring at an early Tulsa exit.