TULSA, Okla. --with his 65 to open the 2022 PGA Championship, but Justin Thomas followed him with an effort that was nearly as impressive. J.T. signed for 67 despite the afternoon wave playing nearly a shot harder given the conditions compared to when McIlroy and the morning wave played.
Thomas had that "I'm bending this course to my will" look in his eye as he birdied the last hole to shoot 32 on the back side after an up-and-down even-par 35 on the front. His 3-under on the second nine was nearly as good as McIlroy's 31 on that side of the course; it foreshadowed a potential dream weekend matchup between two of the best players of their generation.
"I just felt like I managed everything pretty well," Thomas told ESPN after the round. "It was windy out there; it was tough. The greens were very bumpy -- it was very difficult to trust some of your lines. I felt like I did a good job of that -- just committing, trusting everything I was doing and just trying to make today as easy as I possibly could on myself."
He added: "I'd love to sign for three more 67s if I could."
Three more 67s would almost certainly get the job done this weekend with windy weather on the way and only three golfers clear of Thomas. The next three days are an opportunity that J.T. hasn't experienced much over the course of his career. It's been nearly five years since his major win, and in that time, he has just four top 10s and even fewer real chances on the weekend.
That's been mostly true of the man he's chasing, too. McIlroy hasn't won a major in eight years. Somewhat incredibly, both Phil Mickelson (51, not attending this PGA) and Tiger Woods (46, barely barely walking around Southern Hills) have won majors more recently than Thomas and McIlroy.
They're the two to beat right now -- Caesars Sportsbook has McIlroy as the 3-1 favorite and Thomas at 7-1 just behind him -- and they should be in those respective positions. There was a lot of good golf played on Thursday in Tulsa at the second major of the year, but nobody was better early than McIlroy -- and nobody was better late than Thomas. If that stays the same on Friday, they'll meet this weekend for one of the most-anticipated major duels in recent golf history.
Here are eight more thoughts from Round 1 at Southern Hills.
2. Rory numbers dump: McIlroy has a handful of things working for him. Here's a handful of them.
- Five of the seven major winners at Southern Hills have gone wire to wire.
- He's been unbelievable in Round 2-4 scoring average since 2014. Only Brooks Koepka has been better.
- This is the first time he's led or co-led a major round since 2014 (coincidentally, the last time he won, which was also the PGA).
- He didn't make a single score worse than 4 on Thursday.
- He was top 20 among the field in strokes gained putting, approach, off the tee, tee to green and driving distance.
Every number and nugget points to one reality: This is his tournament to lose.
3. Tiger is struggling: My big question after the Masters was whether Tiger's health was actually going to incrementally improve. (literally and figuratively, perhaps) as Woods seemed to be in tremendous pain toward the end of his round. The most disconcerting part of that pain is that it seemed to surprise even Woods. There was pain he was prepared to feel, but this seemed different than -- perhaps beyond -- what he had budgeted. That's a problem, and it's hard to imagine it improving in the short term to the point where he can contend. The other part about Tiger's day that was puzzling was how many irons he hit off the tee. (He was 139th in driving distance.) Playing partner McIlroy was sometimes 100 yards (!) ahead of him, and Tiger was at a massive disadvantage even to Jordan Spieth, who was also hitting driver (albeit not quite as well as McIlroy).
4. Major first: If his hitch-y short putting stroke isn't enough to overcome, Will Zalatoris -- who shot 66 on Thursday and trails McIlroy by one -- will be fighting an uphill battle few pros have ever conquered. It's rare to get your first win at a major championship. And although Zalatoris has the confidence and the game to do so, it would still be mildly surprising if he held off McIlroy, Thomas and others for the first win of his career.
Four American players in the last 40 years have got their first PGA Tour win at a major championship. Three of them (Sluman, Daly, Micheel) did so at the PGA. Will Zalatoris is trying to join them this week.— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGolf) May 19, 2022
5. Cameron Smith saves his round: The 2022 Players champion was 2 over after nine holes before ripping off five birdies in his first seven coming home and finding a spot at 2 under on the leaderboard. It's similar to what he did in Round 1 of the Masters when he made two doubles, kept himself in it and eventually found his way to the final pairing on Sunday. I don't know that that's coming for him again, but if it does, it will be because of what he did Thursday morning at the end of his round.
6. Big names struggle: Brooks Koepka (75), Patrick Cantlay (76) and Billy Horschel (75) are all ranked in the top 20 in the world, yet all struggled mightily on Thursday. Koepka is seemingly injured, which is unfortunate given his major championship success, but Cantlay and Horschel had decent-sized expectations coming in, and all three of them got beat by multiple club pros in Round 1.
7. Inconsistent sand: It wouldn't be the most normal sport if we weren't talking about the inconsistencies of grains of sand in the bunkers. Thomas discussed why the bunkers at Southern Hills could affect the championship later on this week.
"It's definitely the ... most challenging sand I've ever played in just because, first off, it's not very consistent," said J.T. "... Some of them have no sand; some of them are good sand, whatever it is. But then when you do it's very pebbly, and sometimes you can kind of get them between the face and the ball and just see them shoot up and off line. I'm sure you've seen from watching the coverage, it's really difficult to get spin, basically impossible. Some of those bunkers shots that are generally pretty easy or guaranteed up-and-downs definitely is not the case this week."
8. John Daly, 56, injects excitement early: Daly, the 1991 PGA Championship winner, channeled his (much) younger self Thursday and shook up the leaderboard early in Round 1, going out in 34 and making a pair of birdies on the front nine. In the first group off the tees, Daly finished with a respectable 2-over 72, which beat the likes of Jon Rahm (World No. 2) and Tiger Woods (Tiger Woods!) while tying the likes of Collin Morikawa (World No. 3) and Hideki Matsuyama (World No. 11). And oh, because of course he did, Daly did it in his signature style: ripping cigs smashing a McDonald's soda and cruisin' in on a cart.
9. Low-energy finish: I was out with the top three players in the world -- Rahm (+3), Scheffler (+1) and Morikawa (+2) -- and the energy around their group was not tremendous. Part of it was because none of them were playing particularly well, but some of it was because the course was nearly cleared out of fans after Tiger sucked up all the oxygen early in the day. They'll play in front of a more boisterous group Friday morning, and all three of them can work their way back in the mix, although Scheffler did the best clean-up work on Thursday to save a round that could have gone truly sideways late in the day. He lost 2.6 strokes off the tee after finding two hazards but still steered it in the house in a respectable 71. He also hit the shot of the day on Thursday.