TULSA, Okla. -- On Wednesday afternoon, after his final practice round of the week, Rory McIlroy asked somebody near the clubhouse if they had ever heard of The Gathering Place, a massive multi-million dollar Tulsa park where parents often take their adventure-seeking kids. On Thursday morning, after his first round of the 2022 PGA Championship, McIlroy made Southern Hills his own personal playground.
McIlroy shot a 5-under 65 to take the clubhouse lead in the second major championship of the year, and he held it by day's end. Combined with his 64 in the final round of the Masters, he's now taken 129 strokes in the last two major rounds, an impossible number given the difficulty of both courses. His 64 at Augusta National in April was the best round of the day by three, and this 65 on Thursday was the best of the day by one over Will Zalatoris and Tom Hoge.
There has been much consternation -- both internally and externally -- over how McIlroy has started major championships in recent years. Since his last major win at the 2014 PGA Championship, he has constantly found himself playing from behind and needing miracle rounds in the low 60s on the weekend to have a chance of winning any of the four most important events.
Since the start of 2015, McIlroy has a 103-stroke differential between his first round and the final three rounds at majors. That's a problem because playing catch up against the Dustin Johnsons, Jordan Spieths and Collin Morikawas in the world demands perfection, and major championship golf is almost always combatting perfection.
Early on Thursday, as McIlroy teed off with the all-ratings group of Spieth and Tiger Woods, it looked as if this stat would continue. Woods birdied the first hole while McIlroy and Spieth parred, and there was a sense that Woods, who has played four rounds in the last 18 months, would show his partners what major championship play is supposed to look like.
McIlroy did not start poorly, but Woods looked sharp, and it was easy to envision McIlroy wondering how this dude dragging one leg around the ballpark beat him by three. Woods faded fast, though, and Spieth couldn't locate the putting stroke that has eluded him all season. McIlroy gave them both a show.
One of the great drivers in the history of the sport put on one of his great performances off the tee in his 53rd major championship. A course redesign constructed to spar both intellectually and physically with the best iron players in the world had no safeguard for the aerial assault McIlroy put on it. Nor did it have any recourse as McIlroy bounced around the place like a kid traipsing from monkey bars to jungle gym.
McIlroy hit 10 of 14 fairways, which is actually not the most impressive part. That was the fact that he hit 10 drives of 325 yards or more. Here they are from longest to shortest.
- 378 yards
- 378 yards
- 369 yards
- 354 yards
- 338 yards
- 337 yards
- 334 yards
- 332 yards
- 327 yards
- 326 yards
- 306 yards
- 306 yards
Even a state known for its highwire offensive football teams was not prepared for that level of firepower. McIlroy paid off the driver, too, with good distance control and a hot putter. He played all 18 holes of a major championship on Thursday and didn't make a single score worse than four.
"I feel like, this course, it lets you be pretty aggressive off the tee if you want to be," said McIlroy after his round. "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."
The early low number is meaningful as it relates to winning, too. On Tuesday, McIlroy was asked about how he reconciled the idea he posited at Augusta National in April that playing conservative early in major championships was the quickest route to winning the fifth of his career. He smiled as he answered.
"You can't plan on getting out ahead," he said. "That's just something that happens if you play well and you get some momentum. You're sort of feeling it. It's not as if I went out with the mindset those four tournaments of I'm going to go out and shoot 65 the first two days and let them all come and catch me. It just sort of happened. I think, over the past few years, the things that have stopped me from getting in contention or being able to win these majors is big numbers and shooting myself out of it sort of early."
And yet, the only way McIlroy has won major championships is from out in front by shooting something silly on the first day. Conservatism may have kept him in more majors in terms of ticking off top 10s, but winning often takes some guts early in the week, and McIlroy leaned into the lead he built on Thursday after making birdies at four of his first six holes. He went out in 31 and clawed his way to 34 on the back, not by playing prevent defense but by leaning even harder on his driver. He averaged 326 yards on his front nine and 337 on his back.
"I think [you're] just happy with 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," he said. "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."
In all four of his major wins -- 2011 U.S. Open, 2012 PGA, 2014 Open, 2014 PGA -- McIlroy either had the lead or was within one of it after Round 1. In three of those events, he opened with 66 or better. This is the first time since Valhalla in 2014 that he's shot 66 or better in the first round. Additionally, five of the seven major winners at Southern Hills have gone wire to wire.
In other words, everything is coming up McIlroy after one round at Southern Hills as one of the great frontrunners in the sport is now the big favorite to join Byron Nelson, Seve Ballesteros and Peter Thomson in history with five major wins. If he does so this week, he will have reached five at an age younger than last year's champion, Phil Mickelson, won his first.
Sunday is a long way away, though. There's a lot of golf to be played. Many things can happen. All of these are platitudes spewed by everyone early in major championship weeks because it's safer to be cautious than it is to dream. It hurts less that way. But I think we all know where this is headed.
McIlroy is playing at the kind of clip that you don't easily come down from. If he's not leading going into Sunday, he's going to be somewhere close, and that means Sunday is going to feel weighty as hell. That's what happens when generational greats go eight years without a green box on the Wikipedia page.
On Wednesday, as a final peacefulness settled over Southern Hills, McIlroy found himself in the press center located just above the wraparound waterslide that feeds into Southern Hills' pool, which looked extremely inviting as the heavy Tulsa heat permeated every nook and cranny of the property. His wife's old co-workers scurried about putting the final touches on their premier event, and McIlroy picked up his almost-2-year-old inside the building and pointed at the banner inside the building of her dad from Valhalla nearly eight years ago.
He joked that 2014 was back when he was actually dominant in a sport that's always looked so easy for him, and everybody laughed.
Humorous self-deprecation always has a tinge of sadness to it, too, because self-deprecation is really most often disguising self-preservation, and McIlroy's real question inside of that joke is the same question everyone else has been asking for the last few years: Will he ever, at any point, be that player he was?
One round does not provide the answer, of course. But if history means anything at all, this 65 was at least a hint.
Rory McIlroy has not made many murals over the last eight years, at least not ones worthy of hanging in the halls at major championships. But the first 18 holes at this playground were a reminder of what he once was, and with nearly a decade of expectations heaped upon his shoulders and three rounds still to go, what he could be once again.