It’s been eight long years, but Rory McIlroy leads a major championship round. A drought lasting 31 major championships has been broken and it remains to be seen whether there will be silverware come Sunday night.
To quote Clive Tyldesley after Liverpool beat Chelsea in the 2005 UEFA Champions League semi-final, “It’s just like the old days,” and it was. Rory in Thursday’s opening round was the swashbuckling carefree golfer that was dominating golf a decade ago.
McIlroy’s opening 65 was much more than we could have asked for, most Rory fans would have taken a 69 or 70 and considered it a very good day at the office but a superb 65 to end up leading at days end was a bonus.
To put into context just how much of a step in the right direction his first round was, the last time he broke 70 in the opening round of a PGA Championship was in 2014 – he won that year. It was also his best opening round in a major championship since 2011 when he won the US Open at Congressional.
On the last three occasions when he opened up a major championship campaign with a 66 or lower, he has gone on to win (2011 US Open, 2014 Open Championship, 2014 PGA Championship) 2022?
It would be easy to look at the four successive birdies in an explosive front nine, but I feel McIlroy showed a mental capacity that we haven’t seen for eight years. Sure, he dropped shots on two of the par-3s towards the end but you’re going to drop shots around Southern Hills and the old Rory was always liable to reel off a barrage of birdies and chuck in the odd mistake.
For me, it was the wedge shot from 85 yards that set up his opening birdie that told me he was feeling comfortable with his game. However, he made three momentum saving putts which in years gone by he would likely have missed and probably compounded with another error on the following hole.
The par-putt on the 18th (his 9th) was huge to turn in four-under, it would have been a clumsy dropped shot had it slipped by on the right edge and that gave him the momentum to birdie the 2nd and get to five-under.
He avoided what would have been a careless three-putt from the fringe on the third to keep his momentum going and when he birdied the par-5 5th to go to -6 it seemed like another 64 was on the cards.
Bogeys on the par-3s at six and eight were far from ideal but his response to birdie the ninth was a sign that maybe Rory has turned the corner. Three holes and three putts that might have a huge impact on where he finishes on Sunday. Had he missed them, it would still have been a great start, but it would have been tinged with frustration that he fluttered a few shots away for a 68.
Just moments mentally that I haven’t seen from Rory in a long time, particularly the two par saves in the middle of his round, from what’s gone on before I was expecting him to miss them. Never have I been so happy to be wrong.
Today is another huge day for Rory McIlroy, when he put himself into position at the Masters to really put some pressure on Scottie Scheffler, he didn’t push enough and his swing deserted him. When he had the chance to win the 2018 Masters and last year’s US Open on Sunday he stopped pushing.
McIlroy has been guilty of sluggish starts and freewheeling his way into a top-10 over the last eight years, well, now is the ideal time to freewheel it, like he did yesterday.
Rory might not be in the lead when he tees off at just after half seven Irish time tonight, but he is in a great position so far and it is crucial that he doesn’t undo all his hard work and send himself tumbling down the leaderboard. The platform has been built.
Another point of note is that he has been playing well as of late without really exploding into life – 64 at Augusta aside – he ranks inside the top-20 in six of his last eight rounds on tour.
After the first round at Southern Hills he was 4th in SG off the tee, 8th in SG tee to green, 18th in SG approach, 4th in putting and led the field in total strokes gained. He was in his element.
There is a long, long way to go but yeah, it did feel like the old days, for five hours at least.
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