TULSA, Okla. — Rory McIlroy quietly walked into the media center late Wednesday afternoon at Southern Hills. He carried his daughter, Poppy, 1 year old, as he walked along a corridor lined by big pictures of assorted past PGA champions.
They stopped when Poppy pointed to the Collin Morikawa placard and said, “Da-da.” Rory told her, "No, that’s not Da-da, that’s Collin." Then he pointed to the picture next to it, the one featuring Da-da making a swing in colorful purple, super-imposed on a huge, faded black-and-white photo of one of his two PGA Championships, directing Poppy’s attention to it by pointing and said, for the benefit of two writers he knew were standing behind him, “That’s when Daddy was still good.”
Cute. Sweet. Humble. Hilarious.
While other PGA Championship contestants may have been grinding on the practice range in the afternoon heat, McIlroy and his wife, Erica, a former PGA of America official, spent more than an hour on PGA Championship Eve (not an official holiday but maybe we should reconsider that) keeping Poppy entertained in the relative seclusion of the media dining area. This is what you do when you know you’re on, your game is ready and all you’ve got to do is show up at the first tee and let the great golf spill out.
Thursday morning, that’s exactly what happened. McIlroy started on the back nine in the Power Ranger pairing of himself, Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth and went on a spree of four straight birdies starting at the 12th. He added two more on the front before Southern Hills’ testy par 3s cost him bogeys, then he closed strong with a birdie at the 9th, his final hole. It was a sparking 65 that was the answer to the question, "Gee, I wonder if Rory will pick up where he left off after that closing 64 at the Masters?"
The PGA Championship field has thus been put on alert. McIlroy looks suddenly ready to end his eight-year drought of major championships. What’s been holding him back of late in majors? He’s been slower getting out of the gate than Seabiscuit pulling a Ford F-150. McIlroy started 73-73 in Augusta last month, which meant his stellar closing 64 left him three shots short of winner Scottie Scheffler. He began his 2021 Masters with 76 and was toast. Between 2016 and ’18, he failed to shoot lower than 77 in a U.S. Open first round and that included an 80. He kicked off his 2019 British Open in Northern Ireland, his home country, with 79. Sheesh.
Even last year’s PGA at Kiawah Island saw him open with a 75, which left him 11 strokes behind first-round leader and eventual winner Phil Mickelson. McIlroy’s forte at winning majors has been tied to getting out front and staying there.
Well, at the end of Thursday morning’s opening PGA round, McIlroy was out in front, one ahead of Will Zalatoris and Tom Hoge, two shots ahead of Matt Kuchar and Abraham Ancer. Early scoring was maybe a little better than expected, given the 90-degree heat and breezy conditions.
“I was just happy that I stuck to my game plan,” McIlroy said. “Sometimes when you get off to a good start like that, you can start to be a little careful. I stayed aggressive, I stuck to what I was trying to do out there, which I was pleased with.”
While Woods often hit irons off the tees, McIlroy wielded his driver most of the day. He hit it at the par-4 4th and said he took an aggressive line at the par-5 5th, which he birdied. The aggressive line featured him hitting a fade instead of his usual power draw. Asked why, McIlroy laughed and said, “I snap-hooked one there onto the driving range yesterday. So I wasn’t going to do that. That was basically it.”
Superstars are human, too, although not necessarily according to the stats. McIlroy averaged 373.6 yards off the tee on the two driving distance holes, hit 10 of 14 fairways, 12 of 18 greens and had only 25 putts, including a 26-footer at 14, 14-footer at 2 and 18-footer at 9.
Nice stats but more important, McIlroy’s game passes the eye test. He looks like the Rory of 2012 or 2014 again and that confidence, that fragile state of mind that was shattered when he broke down in tears as Europe got trounced in last year’s Ryder Cup, is back.
McIlroy, who said he watched flyover video of the course so he could get a handle on what Southern Hills was like, spoke earlier in the week about breaking quicker.
“You can’t plan on getting out ahead, that’s just something that happens if you play well and get momentum,” he said. “You’re sort of feeling it. The things that have stopped me from getting in contention over the past few years or being able to win these majors is big numbers and shooting myself out of it early.”
Thursday at Southern Hills, McIlroy was feeling it. Chasers, beware. Da-Da is still pretty good.
More PGA Championship Coverage from Morning Read:
> Round 1 Scores, Updates from Southern Hills
> Jordan Spieth Plans to Get Aggressive After Conservative Opening Round
> UPS Dumps Lee Westwood on Heels of LIV Golf Waiver Request
> Hot Temperature, a Hot Start for Rory and a Frigid Brooks Koepka
> Tiger Woods Hobbles to 74 in Opening Round
> Masters Champion Scottie Scheffler Scuffles to 71, But Could Have Been Worse
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