TULSA, Okla. – Rory McIlroy was more interested in his own history in the majors than the peculiar heritage at Southern Hills on Thursday at the PGA Championship.
Southern Hills has proven to be favorable to front-runners. As for McIlroy, he has failed to break par in the opening round 15 times in the 27 majors he has played since winning his last one.
So there was reason for that bounce in his step when he finished with an 18-foot birdie putt for a 5-under-par 65, giving him a one-shot lead at end of a warm and windy day.
He was asked – yes or no – if it was the start he wanted.
“Yes or no? No, I’d rather shoot 74 and try to make the cut tomorrow,” he said. “Yeah, look, it was a great start. I’ve been carrying some good form. 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.”
It’s a different world for Tiger Woods, who chose a different path on a right leg shattered in a car crash 15 months ago and feeling worse on this day than it did at the Masters last month.
Three bogeys in the middle of his round ruined a good start for Woods. Two bogeys at the end gave him a 74, his worst start to the PGA Championship since 2015. And then he limped away for an afternoon of ice baths.
“I just can’t load it,” Woods said of his right leg, injured in February 2021. “Loading hurts, pressing off it hurts, and walking hurts, and twisting hurts. It’s just golf. I don’t play that, if I don’t do that, then I’m all right.”
McIlroy had a one-shot lead over Pebble Beach winner Tom Hoge and Will Zalatoris, who finished his 66 with a 30-foot birdie, his fourth putt of 25 feet or longer.
Justin Thomas, trying to shake off a sinus infection and allergies, made one of only four birdies on the 18th hole for a 67 in the afternoon, when greens had more foot traffic and scoring was more difficult. Also at 67 were Matt Kuchar and Abraham Ancer.
The start was just what McIlroy needed as he tries to end nearly eight years without a major, many of those chances doomed by bad starts. This was his lowest start to par in a major since a 5-under 66 when he won the PGA at Valhalla in 2014, the last of his four majors.
In seven previous majors at Southern Hills, the winner had at least a share of the lead after the first round and every champion was atop the leaderboard from 36 holes until it was over.
That bodes well for McIlroy, and so does his game. He chose to attack with driver, leaving him wedges to par 4s and 3-iron into a pair of par 5s that measure 628 yards and 665 yards.
“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,” he said.
Masters champion Scottie Scheffler had to save par from a tee shot in the water on 18th hole for a 71, his first time over par in two months.
“I didn’t shoot myself out of it,” he said.
Jordan Spieth, who joined Woods and McIlroy in a group that drew a loud and thoroughly entertained crowd, opened with a 72 in his bid to capture the only major keeping him from the career Grand Slam.
Woods opted for a different strategy than McIlroy and Spieth, picking his targets off the tee with irons. That didn’t work when some of those irons didn’t always find the short grass.
“You go out there and hit driver a lot, and if you have a hot week, you have a hot week and you’re up there,” Woods said. “The game is just different. It’s much more aggressive now, and I know that. But I was playing to my spots. If I would have hit the ball solidly on those two holes and put the ball in the fairway, I would have been fine.”
The difference between McIlroy and Woods was clear early in the round. On the 461-yard 12th hole, Woods hit iron off the tee that left him 178 yards. McIlroy pounded driver with a slight fade with the prevailing breeze, leaving him 86 yards. He hit lob wedge to a foot for birdie.
That was the start of four straight birdies for McIlroy, which included a 6-iron to 25 feet for his longest birdie of the day at the par-3 14th.
McIlroy made birdie on the two par 5s from greenside bunkers. He hit another big drive on the tough par-4 second, leaving 7-iron to about 10 feet.
“Making birdie there is a real bonus,” he said.
Woods has said he has good days and bad, and this didn’t look like a great one.
Of equal concern was going into Friday nine shots behind McIlroy and likely having to fight to make the cut.
The warmth – not oven heat like the 2007 PGA in August – and mild wind led to ideal scoring, though Southern Hills still had enough defense.
Twenty-six players from a field of 156 broke par, only nine of them in the afternoon. McIlroy will have to deal with the late start on Friday.
“I don’t think a major champion here has ever been double digits under par, so you know the scores aren’t going to go much further,” Hoge said. “It’s a grind out here.”
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