Rory McIlroy lets loose at Southern Hills to take early lead at USPGA 

Irishman fires a 5-under 65 to set early pace at Southern Hills
Rory McIlroy lets loose at Southern Hills to take early lead at USPGA 

Ireland's Rory McIlroy hits his tee shot on the 16th hole during his first round of the US PGA at Southern Hills in Oklahoma. Picture: AP Photo/Eric Gay

A strong morning start at the PGA Championship was just what Rory McIlroy ordered, as the Irishman rode an early four-birdie run on the back and a hot driver to a 5-under 65 and an early one-shot lead at Southern Hills.

Playing with Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth in front of massive but well-behaved galleries, McIlroy came out blazing by taking aggressive lines off the tee and making full advantage of the wide fairways at Southern Hills.

McIlroy drained an 18-footer for his seventh birdie of the day on the ninth, his last hole of the day, to take a one-shot lead over Will Zalatoris and Tom Hoge. The 65 was his lowest opening round in a major since he shot the same number in 2011 in the US Open at Congressional en route to his first major victory.

His lowest opening round in any major was 63 at St Andrews in 2010.

“It was nice to get off to that good start and sorta keep it going,” McIlroy said.

“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.” 

On the back of his final-round 64 at the Masters, McIlroy had been nearly flawless. He hadn’t made bogey in a major since the 12th hole on Saturday at Augusta, a span of 38 holes in which he went a cumulative 16-under par.

“I've been playing well coming in here. I've been carrying some good form. Obviously, I took a lot from that last round at Augusta, played well up in D.C. at the Wells Fargo there, and played good in the practice rounds earlier this week,” McIlroy said.

The two long par-3 holes Nos. 6 and 8 brought McIlroy’s torrid run to a halt. He missed the 218-yard sixth just over the back and missed an 8-footer to save par. Then on the 249-yard eighth, his greenside bunker shot settled six feet away and he missed another par putt to slip back to four-over and into a tie atop the board with Hoge.

But he got one last good look at birdie on the last and made it count to reclaim the lead. His 65 was 12 strokes better than Pádraig Harrington’s 7-over 77, who made a hash of the greenside bunkers in accumulating seven bogeys and a double.

“I think 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,” McIlroy said. 

“I stayed aggressive, hit that driver up (No.) 4, took an aggressive line on (No.) 5. Yeah, I stuck to what I was trying to do out there, which I was pleased with.

“Then if anything (displeased me), obviously the two bogeys on the par-3s on the front nine. But it's very easy to make bogeys out here. You get yourself just a little bit out of position, you catch a little bit of grain around the green, it's tricky.”

McIlroy got off to a clinically clean start, hitting every fairway or green in his first six holes starting on the back nine. After a pair of relative kick-in birdies on Nos. 12 and 13, McIlroy buried a 26-foot putt for birdie on the par-3 14th and added another from 9 feet on 15 to launch himself into solo leadership in the morning wave.

He missed his first fairway into a deep bunker on the 527-yard par-4 16th, but a brilliant recovery to just short of the green led to a par save. His 16-footer for birdie barely missed on No. 17, but he made another excellent par save on the brutally difficult 18th with a 7-foot putt.

McIlroy kept the momentum going after turning to the front side even as the winds picked up as the morning wore on. On the par-4 second that derailed Harrington off the jump, McIlroy flushed a 332-yard drive and drained a 14-footer for his fifth birdie to open a two-shot advantage.

The first good chance that McIlroy failed to convert came on the short par-4 fourth (his 13th hole) where he slightly pulled his 8-foot birdie putt after bombing his drive within 45 yards of the pin on the elevated green.

On the 665-yard par-5 fifth, McIlroy’s confidence off the tee was apparent as he hit a towering drive over the corner of the dogleg 369 yards, leaving him only 288 into the green. He gave it a go from there and very nearly rolled it up onto the green before it caught the corner of the greenside bunker.

“It was great right up until the last second,” McIlroy could be overheard saying.

His bunker shot rolled out 12 feet long, but he confidently poured in his sixth birdie putt of the day to reach 6-under and extend his lead to three shots at the time.

“I think 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 possibly can, and just sort of staying in your own little world,” McIlroy said. “I did that really well today.” 

Woods, meanwhile, got off to a promising start with a quick birdie on his opening hole (No. 10) and another on the par-3 14th to sit 2-under. But he very nearly shanked an iron off the par-4 15th tee that led to his first bogey and added another on 18 to make the turn in even par.

On the front side, however, Woods struggled to a 4-over 39, making bogeys on 1, 2, 4, 8, and 9 and a lone birdie on the third to shoot 74.

“I got off to a great start and didn't keep it going,” Woods said. “I really didn't give myself any looks for birdie. I was struggling trying to get the ball on the green, and I missed quite a few iron shots both ways. It was a frustrating day.” 

Woods also showed the strain on his surgically repaired lower leg much earlier than he did in his return last month at the Masters: “Yeah, my leg is not feeling as good as I would like it to be. We'll start the recovery process and get after it tomorrow.” 

Spieth, trying to win the missing piece in his career slam quest, shot 2-over 72.

Harrington’s morning proved taxing, particularly with Southern Hills’ bunkers.

He drove into the creek that meanders across the second fairway and then put his long approach after the penalty into the greenside bunker, where he failed to get up and down from 40 yards to suffer a double bogey.

He quickly recovered by hitting it to 2 feet from 130 yards on No. 3, but bogeys at 4, 8 and 10 pushed him to 4-over and was already nine shots behind McIlroy’s early pace after they’d each played 11 holes. Four more bogeys in his last five holes left him at 7-over and ahead of only four club professionals and Carlos Ortiz (79) in the field when he walked off the course.

Harrington hit into eight greenside bunkers and only once, on the ninth hole, was he able to get up and down to save par. Six of his seven bogeys and his lone double came via missing a green in the bunker. He also bogeyed the brutal 18th to finish after missing the green long and failing to sink a 12-footer for par.

More in this section

Ireland's Top 10 Hidden Gems

Ten of the best golf courses in Ireland that too few people know about.

Read Here

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox