Eyes on the prize: Rory McIlroy leads US PGA after opening 65

Tiger Woods and Spieth at times must have felt like witnesses to McIlroy’s masterclass

The three headline acts had the stage to themselves. Tiger Woods, the miracle man. Jordan Spieth, the Grand Slam chaser. Rory McIlroy, daring to believe again.

And as the trio worked their ways through the undulating, tree-lined course of Southern Hills in the 104th US PGA Championship in Tulsa, the one who separated away to take centre stage was the Northern Irishman who opened with a wonderfully crafted five-under-par 65 to lead by one stroke after day one over Americans Tom Hoge and Will Zalatoris.

At times in the opening round of the season’s second Major, the three players joked as if on a social outing. When Tiger Woods pulled a mammoth homemade sandwich wrapped in tin foil from his bag to consume during a delay on the 14th, their fifth hole, the wise-cracking interaction between them told its own story.

But, by the end, the serious faces had replaced the mirth.

In Woods’ case, there were also grimaces of pain at times as his damaged right leg sent shooting pains through his system. “I just can’t load it. Loading hurts, pressing off it hurts, and walking hurts, and twisting hurts... my leg is not feeling as good as I would like it to be. We’ll start the recovery process and get after it,” said Woods, who battled to an opening 74.

For McIlroy, there was no such pain. And his fist pump into the air after sinking a tricky 15-footer on the final green demonstrated its importance in taking him to the rarified air of topping the leaderboard in a Major again.

Once upon a time, such a scenario was taken for granted. McIlroy, the leader, the one to be chased down. But not these days, not since he lifted his last Major title – in the 2014 US PGA – and, for the now 33-year-old, making a strong start to his quest for a fifth career Major rather than getting behind the eight ball was a critical part of his strategy to potentially lift the Wanamaker Trophy again.

"Look, it was a great start to the tournament. I've been playing well coming in here, been carrying some good form. Obviously I took a lot from the last round at Augusta (finishing with a 64 in the Masters), played well up in DC at the Wells Fargo and played good in the practice rounds earlier this week.

“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 possible can and of staying in your own little world. I did that really well,” reflected McIlroy.

Of the other Irish taking part in Southern Hills, Shane Lowry made a solid start with an even-par 70, Séamus Power shot one more for a one-over-par 71, while Pádraigh Harrington neared the rear of the field after a disastrous seven-over-par 77.

But the star of the day was no doubt McIlroy, like the Rory of old, more often than not making the aggressive play and trusting his driver to get him into position to attack.

“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,” conceded McIlroy, after a round of seven birdies and two bogeys.

McIlroy, who started on the 10th, caught fire midway through his opening nine with a run of four successive birdies from the 12th, where he pitched to 12 inches. On the 13th, he splashed out of a greenside bunker to tap-in distance. Then rolled in a right-to-left breaking 15-footer on the 14th and sank an eight-footer on the 15th.

After making the turn in 31 strokes, McIlroy moved to six-under with birdies on the second and fifth before hitting a speed bump with bogeys on the each of the Par 3s – missing the green right on the sixth and then finding a greenside bunker on the eighth and failing to get up and down. But he managed to reclaim the lead with a closing birdie when, after pulling his tee shot left, he hit a gap wedge from the rough to 15 feet and sank the putt which was met with that fist bump into the air.

“When you get off to a good start like that, 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. I stayed aggressive, I stuck to what I was trying to do out there, which I was pleased with,” said McIlroy.

Woods and Spieth at times must have felt like witnesses to McIlroy’s masterclass but stuck gamely to their tasks when it looked as if their rounds would run away from them. Spieth suffered three bogeys in a four hole stretch at one point but ultimately signed for a 72, while Woods’s lack of game time was clear in a round of seven bogeys and three birdies.

There was also clear difference in how Woods sought to play the course compared to the aggressive driving of McIlroy, especially, and Spieth.

“The game is played very differently now, and it’s very aggressive. We were talking about it today, Joey (LaCava) and I, the days of the Lee Janzens and the Scott Simpsons and the Faldos of the world, playing that kind of golf is gone. 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. The game is just different. It’s much more aggressive now, and I know that,” admitted Woods.

And nobody demonstrated that aggression better than McIlroy, who had that old pep in his step back as he strode off the ninth green and up the hill to the recorder’s hut to sign for a clubhouse leading score and with eyes on the grand prize ahead.

US PGA Championship, Southern Hills, Oklahoma

(USA unless stated, Par 70):
65 Rory McIlroy (NIrl)

66 Tom Hoge, Will Zalatoris

67 Abraham Ancer (Mex), Matt Kuchar, Justin Thomas

68 Matthew Fitzpatrick (Eng), Lucas Herbert (Aus), Chris Kirk, Kevin Na, Joaquin Niemann (Chi), Guillermo Mito Pereira (Chi), Davis Riley, Xander Schauffele, Cameron Smith (Aus)

69 Dean Burmester (Rsa), Stewart Cink, Tony Finau, Talor Gooch, Patton Kizzire, Kyoung-Hoon Lee (Kor), Thomas Pieters (Bel), Patrick Reed, Webb Simpson, Aaron Wise, Beau Hossler

70 Ryan Fox (Nzl), 70 Tyrrell Hatton (Eng), Russell Henley, Max Homa, Viktor Hovland (Nor), Shane Lowry (Irl), Robert MacIntyre (Sco), Francesco Molinari (Ita), Alexander Noren (Swe), Gary Woodland, Brendan Steele

71 Sam Burns, Jason Day (Aus), Rickie Fowler, Tommy Fleetwood (Eng), Justin Harding (Rsa), Si Woo Kim (Kor), Shaun Norris (Rsa), Séamus Power (Irl), Justin Rose (Eng), Scottie Scheffler, Sepp Straka (Aut), Kevin Streelman, Harold Varner III, Yong-Eun Yang (Kor), Cameron Young, Kramer Hickok, Adam Schenk, Charl Schwartzel (Rsa)

72 Adria Arnaus (Spa), Keegan Bradley, Laurie Canter (Eng), Alex Cejka (Ger), John Daly, Cameron Davis (Aus), Jason Dufner, Lanto Griffin, Yuki Inamori (Jpn), Chan Kim, Kevin Kisner, Marc Leishman (Aus), Hideki Matsuyama (Jpn), Keith Mitchell, Collin Morikawa, Jesse Mueller, J. J. Spaun, Jordan Spieth, Henrik Stenson (Swe), Cameron Tringale, Bubba Watson, Bernd Wiesberger (Aut)

73 Alex Beach, Rich Beem, Daniel Berger, Christiaan Bezuidenhout (Rsa), Matthew Borchert, Sergio Garcia (Spa), Branden Grace (Rsa), Adam Hadwin (Can), Dustin Johnson, Matt Jones (Aus), Jinichiro Kozuma (Jpn), Anirban Lahiri (Ind), Min-Woo Lee (Aus), Maverick McNealy, Troy Merritt, Louis Oosthuizen (Rsa), Ryan Palmer, Jon Rahm (Spa), Jhonattan Vegas (Ven), Joel Dahmen, Denny McCarthy

74 Richard Bland (Eng), Cameron Champ, Brian Harman, Garrick Higgo (Rsa), Harry Higgs, Sam Horsfield (Eng), Rikuya Hoshino (Jpn), Zach Johnson, Jason Kokrak, Luke List, Sebastian Munoz (Col), Hudson Swafford, Daniel van Tonder (Rsa), Tiger Woods, Russell Knox (Sco)

75 Lucas Glover, Billy Horschel, Sadom Kaewkanjana (Tha), Brooks Koepka, Kyle Mendoza, Erik van Rooyen (Rsa), Ryan Vermeer, Lee Westwood (Eng)

76 Ryan Brehm, Patrick Cantlay, Corey Conners (Can), Martin Kaymer (Ger), Bio Kim (Kor), Shaun Micheel, Ian Poulter (Eng), Matthew Wolff

77 Brandon Bingaman, Tim Feenstra, Pádraig Harrington (Irl), Mackenzie Hughes (Can), Takumi Kanaya (Jpn), Pablo Larrazabal (Spa), Chad Ramey, Adam Scott (Aus), Wyatt Worthington II

78 Oliver Bekker (Rsa), Michael Block, Paul Dickinson, Nicolai Hoejgaard (Den), Austin Hurt, Colin Inglis, Nic Ishee, Joo-Hyung Kim (Kor), Dylan Newman, Shawn Warren, Scott Stallings

79 Tyler Collet, Jared Jones, Ryosuke Kinoshita (Jpn), Carlos Ortiz (Mex), Casey Pyne

81 Zac Oakley

82 Sean McCarty

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