Rory McIlroy was very much on brand during his opening round of the PGA Championship as he contrived to play himself out of contention but then somehow clawed his way into the tournament with several heart palpitations along the way.
Despite hitting just two fairways the 2012 and 2014 PGA champion somehow carded a one-over 71 and while he can consider himself in contention at six shots shy of rookie Eric Cole, a dramatic improvement off the tee is needed to have a realistic chance of winning his fifth major title and first in nine years.
“Just not at my best. I’m just struggling with my swing,” admitted McIlroy after his opening round at Oak Hill. “Yeah, it’s pretty messy out there, so just trying to make pars.
“I guess it was tough as well. There was a lot of crosswinds off tees, so it made it hard to hit fairways. Yeah, no, I can definitely hit it better than that.”
McIlroy was clinging onto life support and his championship looked all but over before it had started when he was staring a double bogey in the face on the par-4 2nd (his 11th). Having missed the fairway by a distance with an iron, he was unable to reach the green before his third shot carried too far and rolled over the back of the green into position Z.
Already three-over-par after three bogeys in four holes to close out his front nine, the four-time major champion saw his par ‘attempt’ lip IN for a heroic escape. A par he needed, but did not deserve and he admitted it was a desperately needed shot in the arm.
“It was massive. I was staring sort of just hoping to get done in two and make bogey and go to the third hole at 4-over par.
“When you walk off the green 3-over and then you hit a tee shot like that, and all of a sudden, the pendulum swings or momentum goes the other way, and all of a sudden you make a couple of birdies in a row, and you feel like you’re sort of right back in the tournament.
“So, yeah, it was massive. I don’t know how — depending on what happens over the next three days and what I go on to do, you know, I may look back at that shot as being the sort of turning point of the week.”
McIlroy caught a break and capitalised on it with a kick in birdie on the par-3 3rd before his second fairway hit of the day on the par-5 4th teed up an eagle chance before he settled for a tap in birdie.
At one-over-par and just four shots off the early lead he was back in the tournament before a clumsy three-putt bogey threatened to undo all his hard work.
A herculean escape from the left rough on 6 set up another good birdie chance which he passed up before a character building birdie on his penultimate hole the 8th brought him back to a shot over par and within six of Cole but more importantly he has Scottie Scheffler still in his sights at -3.
McIlroy ranked 89th in driving accuracy, 65th in strokes gained off the tee but he saved himself with some good approach play from tough positions, ranking fifth in that category.
“I feel a bit better than if I got off to a good start is and made a couple of bogeys on the way in.
“I guess, if anything, I started to see a couple of better golf shots coming down the last few holes. Hit that good 6-iron into the third hole and two great shots into 4. Good iron shot into 6. Nice wedge shot into 8. There was a couple of glimmers of hope in there coming in.”
Not only is the four-time major winner fighting his swing but his body is also battling to stay healthy for the four days after microphones picked up a conversation he had with playing partner Justin Thomas walking off the tenth tee where McIlroy revealed he had slept better than he had been previously.
“I’m fighting something. I thought I got a great night’s sleep last night, and I look at my Whip, and I was 22 percent recovery, and my skin temperature was 3.5 degrees higher than what it’s been. I’m fighting something.
“But I actually feel better today than I felt yesterday, so plenty of water and a bit of rest, I’ll be fine.”
Everything on day one of the PGA Championship was very much part of the Rory McIlroy package at Oak Hill.
Meanwhile Padraig Harrington and Shane Lowry finished two-over and three-over respectively while Seamus Power’s opening birdie proved a false dawn as he slumped to a five-over 75.
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