TULSA, Oklahoma – When the afternoon field zigged, Rory McIlroy zagged.
As the winds laid down and the soft and uncut greens were as receptive as any you’ll ever see in a major championship, the leaderboard was hemorrhaging red birdies at Southern Hills in the afternoon wave of the PGA Championship.
McIlroy, however, never could summon his brilliance on Friday and struggled to make only one birdie in shooting a 1-over 71. If not for a series of par saves at 16, 17 and 18, he could have lost reach on the leaders. Instead, he’s still 4-under and tied fifth five strokes behind leader Will Zalatoris.
“You're not going to go out and shoot 65 every day,” McIlroy said. “Maybe it was a case I wasn't maybe quite as committed or aggressive as I was yesterday.”
While Zalatoris shot 65 to take the 36-hole lead at 9-under 131, Mito Pereira of Chile shot 64 to get to 8-under, and Bubba Watson shot 63 despite two bogeys and narrow miss on the last, McIlroy treaded water.
“I didn't get off to the best of starts, that bogey on 2, and then I guess from there, it was not really giving myself enough realistic chances for birdies,” McIlroy said.
“But those up-and-downs on 16, 17, and 18 I think were going to be really important. Just keeps me a little closer to the lead and doesn't really feel like I've got such a mountain to climb if I had have maybe dropped one or two over those last three holes.”
McIlroy missed the fairway on each of the first three holes – sometimes barely – and that confident bounce that he displayed on Thursday when he led the field in strokes gained total (7.833) was gone. He missed eight of 14 fairways, hit an average of 15 feet further from the hole (44 feet proximity) and dropped to 58th in strokes gained total (1.303).
“I would say I didn't put myself in position off the tee enough to get my approach to where it needed to be,” McIlroy said. “It's a massive difference between being on the fairway and being in this rough. I don't think the stats tell the full story there. I think it was more me being out of position. I certainly felt like I played from the fairway a lot more yesterday.
McIlroy will have to buck a long-standing trend at Southern Hills if he wants to collect his third Wanamaker Trophy and first major since 2014. In seven previous majors on the course, the 36-hole leader has always gone on to win.
But only Justin Thomas (6-under) and Watson (5-under) ahead of McIlroy on the leaderboard have ever won majors before.
And with the forecast calling for significantly colder temperatures and a wind shift to the opposite direction, the weekend will be a whole new ballgame.
“There's a long way to go, a lot of golf left,” McIlroy said. “We're going to see a completely different golf course the next two days because of the wind direction. It's going to play completely differently. … For the most part everyone is going to have to adapt.
“It's just going to play much differently tomorrow, and that makes it very interesting.”
Pádraig Harrington added a 75 to his first-round 77 to miss the cut and head to next week’s Senior PGA Championship in Michigan early. He didn’t leave Southern Hills overly concerned about his results.
“Game is fine,” Harrington said. “Nothing to fix.”