Getty Images

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The first day of the 2024 Wells Fargo Championship ended with Xander Schauffele atop the leaderboard holding a three-stroke lead at 7 under but with Rory McIlroy top of mind. The three-time tournament winner was among the last on the golf course Thursday, and despite a bumpy back nine, was able to sign for a 4-under 67 to sit firmly in the rearview mirror of the leader. McIlroy is among a chasing pack that includes the likes of Collin Morikawa, Justin Thomas and Max Homa.

"I'm hitting the ball really well again, with some of the shots that I hit out there today with the driver, some of the iron shots were much better, I feel like putting's good," McIlroy said. "And I felt like things were starting to turn around for me in New Orleans, played a good weekend there. Sort of just -- I got a really nice couple feelings in my swing that week, and I've just sort of tried to ingrain those over the last, whatever that is, 10 days. Yeah, it feels good. It was good to play a solid round of golf today. Left a couple out there, I feel, but at the same time, I've got three more days to try to build on what I've done today."

McIlroy's day began in emphatic fashion, signing for a turkey of birdies from holes No. 3-5. He immediately rose to the first page of the leaderboard, and his name would vault to the very top a couple holes later when a 55-foot eagle bid found the bottom of the cup. With a short par 4 and another par 5 among the ensuing holes, McIlroy had the look and runway of taking flight.

His ball did just that on the drivable par-4 8th as the world No. 2's tee shot finished beyond the green. What momentum was garnered the first seven holes was grounded the rest of the way in as McIlroy finished par-bogey on his front nine to turn in 4-under 31.

The recently turned 35-year-old seesawed on the back half with birdies on Nos. 10, 13 and 16 offset by bogeys on Nos. 11, 15 and 18. McIlroy missed out on a chance to inch closer to Schauffele by dropping a shot on the par-5 15th and missing a short birdie effort on the hole prior to set up a devilish bunker shot from just inside 50 yards, but he remains within reach. And whenever McIlroy is within reach at Quail Hollow, good things tend to happen.

The leader

1. Xander Schauffele (-7)

Schauffele's run of form has sprinted into this week with a near-flawless 7-under 64 in Round 1. Last year's runner-up will now look to do one better against a chasing pack littered with major champions. The Olympic gold medalist was impressive during the early action on Thursday -- a time during which many were confused. With Quail Hollow rain-soaked, competitors assumed the resurfaced greens would soften. That assumption never came to fruition, however. 

Distance control with the irons became paramount, and there was none better than Schauffele. Consistently hitting his approach shots pin high, he was in full control up until the drivable par-4 8th where a generous ruling came to his aid. Receiving a free drop due to a Shotlink tower cable being in his line of sight, Schauffele saved par and tacked on a birdie on the par-4 finisher for good measure. Those are the exact breaks Schauffele has to take advantage of if he plans to win for the first time since the 2022 Scottish Open.

"I hit it in the trees. My ball was probably like a foot, 2 feet from the fence … If I went towards the green, the fence kind of worked this way, so I had what I could hit, a 4-iron or something low and just kind of run it through," Schauffele said. "If it gets stuck, I'll just kind of hit my next one out. But I brought the rules official in there with me because I was like, 'you've got to be OK with this because this is literally the only shot I can hit.' So Austin and I moved two massive rocks that weren't embedded, and then I got relief out of the junk and then hit a pretty good shot on the green from there. What was a very stressful moment turned into a pretty stressless par."

Other contenders

T2. Rory McIlroy, Collin Morikawa, Alex Noren (-4)
T5. Justin Thomas, Sungjae Im, Jason Day, Sepp Straka, Lee Hodges, Russell Henley, Taylor Moore (-3)

There is a quiet confidence about Morikawa right now that seems to grow louder and louder by the day. Speaking with CBS Sports earlier in the week, the two-time major champion insisted he is very close to the player he was just a few years ago and that stringing together four quality rounds is just around the corner. Despite not traveling to Charlotte too often in his career (this is only his second start at Quail Hollow), Morikawa looked right at home en route to his 4-under 67. He didn't miss an iron shot left, took advantage of the holes he was supposed to and played the style of golf that will be successful not only this week but, more importantly, next. He may string together his four rounds this week and win, but he could also string together four months and do some major damage in the process.

"I've seen spurts here and there throughout the past few years," Morikawa said. "I want to go on a run essentially, right? You want to go on a nice stretch of golf. So it was nice to obviously have that finish at the Masters even though it didn't play out the way I wanted, but knowing that this week is going to be great prep, especially going into next week, just got to dial in everything as much as we can and be ready."

2024 Wells Fargo Championship updated odd, picks

  • Xander Schauffele: 2-1
  • Rory McIlroy: 3-1
  • Collin Morikawa: 9-1
  • Justin Thomas: 14-1
  • Max Homa: 16-1
  • Alex Noren: 18-1

Schauffele was my selection at the beginning of the week, and he is my selection after Thursday. If you're just now jumping into the tournament, there may be a better ride to catch as 2-1 feels short despite his three-stroke lead. Max Homa was impressive in Round 1 with his 2-under 69. After experiencing a sloppy start, the 2019 champion bounced back and looks primed to contend at Quail Hollow once again.