On a rainy day in England, Rory McIlroy kicked off the European Tour's crown jewel event, the 2018 BMW PGA Championship, with a 5-under 67. The No. 8 player in the world trails leader Lucas Bjerregaard by two and sits T4 after 18 holes.

McIlroy won this event in 2014, but he's played it only once since then and missed the cut. The BMW PGA Championship is to the European Tour what The Players Championship is to the PGA Tour, and this year's event marks the start of the eight-tournament Rolex Series, which also includes the Italian Open, French Open, Irish Open, Scottish Open and World Tour Championship.

His card in Round 1 included seven birdies, two bogeys and some absolutely flagged irons. McIlroy has been off since he missed the cut at TPC Sawgrass a few weeks ago, and he insinuated on Thursday that he feels better than his last few tournament starts in the United States when he struggled a bit (for him, anyway) off the tee.

"I think I did everything pretty well,"McIlroy said. "I drove the ball much better and put the ball in play off the tee a lot more than I've done the last couple of weeks so that's been really good. I thought I gave myself a lot of chances. I took most of them. A little frustrated I couldn't get a birdie or two out of the last couple of holes, but overall, a really good start."

"It was good to see golf like that," he added. "It was good to see the shots that I hit, and the drives that I hit. I put in play a lot more. Still hit a couple of loose shots out there, but I guess you can't expect perfection all the time. You have to sort of take it as it is. But I played well. I played a lot better today than I have done the last couple of weeks, so it's a good step in the right direction."

McIlroy hasn't exactly been terrible this year. He has a win and four top 25s on the PGA Tour (including a T5 at the Masters) as well as two other top-five finishes on the European Tour, but he's noted in recent weeks that he's had to grind more than normal. And by his standards, three missed cuts in nine PGA Tour tournaments is subpar.

His stats have also been intriguing. He's 30th in strokes gained driving on the PGA Tour, which for him is not very good. But he's 39th in strokes gained putting, which for him is tremendous. His strokes gained on approach shots and around the green are both outside the top 50. Not terrible, but he's certainly been sharper over the course of his career. 

One area where he's shown marked improvement is his wedge game. Last year he was outside the top 140 on the PGA Tour in proximity to the hole from 100-125 yards and from 125-150 yards. This year, he's in the top 20 from both distances. 

"My wedge play was really good, and that's something I've tried to work on continuously over the course of the last 12 months, trying to get that better," McIlroy said on Thursday. "Anytime I had a wedge in my hand today, I felt I had a realistic chance for birdie afterwards. If I can keep doing that, and if I can keep putting it in the fairway like I have been, that's really positive signs going forward."

He looked terrific on Thursday from those distances above. The rest of this tournament -- as well as the rest of his summer -- will be determined by whether he can mesh all these parts of his game in a sustainable way. McIlroy is obviously one of the great drivers of the ball ever, and his putting and wedge play only have to be average for him to contend and win. They have been so far this year for the most part (and he has won), but now the driver has lapsed a smidge. He talked about that at the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow a few weeks ago.

"I'm just not that comfortable with anything right now," McIlroy said. "I'm trying really hard to hit it in the fairway and then trying really hard to get my irons on line. It's all just a little bit of a struggle."

He corrected that in Round 1 at the BMW PGA Championship, but it remains to be seen whether he can keep it up for all four rounds.

"Obviously there's the next three days to worry about ... on from that, I've got a few big tournaments coming up in the States, and then a very busy summer with a lot of important stuff coming up," said McIlroy. "So if I can keep playing like this, it should hopefully be a good summer."

For McIlroy, it's all about the big daddy events. The U.S. Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship (the other one). The Ulsterman hasn't won on the European Tour since 2016 when he took his home Irish Open with one of the great 3-woods I've ever seen on the 72nd hole. A win this week would, to say the least, be a nice kick-start to what could be, as he said, a big summer for the four-time major winner.