Rory McIlroy's Eventful PGA Week Continues With 'Scrappy' Opening 66

A decade after his last major win at Valhalla, the Ulsterman got the most out of his first round.
Rory McIlroy is in the hunt early after an opening 66 at Valhalla.
Rory McIlroy is in the hunt early after an opening 66 at Valhalla. / Jeff Faughender-USA TODAY Sports

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Rory McIlroy’s eventful week continued with an eventful opening round of the PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club.

McIlroy had a tee shot simply disappear on one hole, rattled the flagstick from 165 yards out on the next, chipped in for birdie at one point and then swatted down a couple more questions about his personal life after it was over. The end result was a 5-under-par 66 on a sun-splashed Kentucky morning that has him in the mix for his first major championship in a decade, since winning this same event on this same course in 2014. 

“I sort of felt like it was pretty scrappy for the most part,” McIlroy said. “I thought I got a lot out of my game today. Not really happy with how I played but at least happy with the score.”

McIlroy was happier with his score than with two questions that skirted the edge of addressing his divorce, which he filed for on Monday in Florida. McIlroy said Wednesday that he didn’t want to talk about it, and that clearly hadn’t changed Thursday. But golf is a gossip sport, so he had to know what was coming.

Question: Was it nice to be inside the ropes and just to concentrate on golf? Obviously other things going on this week.

Answer: It's always nice to be inside the ropes.

Follow-up question: We always ask players about compartmentalizing. Is that something you're good at and you're going to have to rely on this week?

Answer: Happy to be here.

McIlroy’s joy was tested on holes 17 and 18 at Valhalla. Teeing off on the second nine, he was 2 under par when he got to 17, a long par-4 with a green that can be hard to hit. The Irishman put his second shot in a greenside bunker, blasted past the hole, missed his par putt and tapped in for bogey. Then things got weird.

On No. 18, McIlroy sent a towering tee shot slicing toward the water, rocks and deep rough along the right side of the fairway. Where it landed, nobody knows. Course spotters didn’t see the ball land and couldn’t locate it. McIlroy joined the search party without success.

He took a drop for a stroke penalty and went to work salvaging a potential disaster. McIlroy slashed out of deep grass to within 115 yards, then dialed in a sharp approach and holed the putt for a steely par.

“Took my medicine (with the stroke penalty), and yeah, made a great up-and-down from about 120 yards to make par, which was important after making bogey on 17,” McIlroy said. “That kept any momentum that I had going into the next nine.”

The momentum was sustained when he covered the flag from 165 yards out on No. 1, with the ball fortuitously dropping nearly straight down after banging against the stick. McIlroy tapped that in for birdie to return to 2 under, then peeled off birdies on holes 5 through 7. The middle of those was a chip-in from off the green.

“It was huge,” McIlroy said of the No. 18-No. 1 tandem. “I could have easily bogeyed 18 and been back to even par, and then again, that ball on 1 could have hit the flagstick and went anywhere. I could have made bogey from that. Potentially being 1-over par through 10, I'm 2-under. So it's a three-shot difference. It's a big swing.”

McIlroy’s round exemplified both the fickle whims of golf and the importance of calmly persevering through them. Good breaks and bad, good shots and bad, the course of a major tournament never did run smooth. (Well, maybe a few times for Tiger Woods back in the day.) Just keep swinging.

These tournaments are marathons, but on a day when Xander Schauffele posted a course-record 62, starting well was non-negotiable. This was McIlroy’s ninth career round of 66 or better in a major—the most in golf history—and he needed all of it.

This duplicated his first-round 66 in 2014, but the context is different. That was only a shot out of the lead back then, whereas a 66 this year merely puts a golfer in a thick tangle of Schauffele pursuers. Valhalla was rain-softened and gettable Thursday.

There are plenty of accomplished golfers near the top heading into the second round, but none moreso than McIlroy. He’s won four majors and finished in the top 10 26 other times in majors—20 of them since that last victory here. He’s won twice on the PGA TOUR this year, including last week at Quail Hollow.

His game is built for success at Valhalla, where the fairways are wide enough to invite bombers to fire away.

“You can open your shoulders up off the tee and try to take your chances from there,” he said Wednesday, adding that his long game is in peak form. “Honestly it’s probably the best driver I’ve had in the last few years. I’ve really gotten comfortable with the driver, and I think some of the technical things in my swing are just a little bit better. The good drives are still very good but the bad drives aren’t as bad so the misses aren’t as wild."

Rory’s distinctive, jaunty bounce-walk could be a soggy slog Friday afternoon, with more rain expected in the Louisville area. But he’s in contention once again, seeking to break a decade-long major championship drought. Even when surrounded by stout competition and off-course personal drama, you have to like his chances.


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Pat Forde

PAT FORDE

Pat Forde is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, covering college football and basketball as well as the Olympics and horse racing. He co-hosts the College Football Enquirer podcast and is a football analyst on the Big Ten Network. He previously worked for Yahoo Sports, ESPN and The (Louisville) Courier-Journal. Pat has won a remarkable 28 Associated Press Sports Editors writing contest awards; been published three times in Best American Sports Writing; and was nominated for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize. A past president of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and member of the Football Writers Association of America, Pat lives in Louisville with his wife. They have three children, all of whom were college swimmers.