LOUISVILLE, Ky. – There are two distinctly different ways to analyze the PGA Championship leaderboard. Both ways include Rory McIlroy.
First, he’s not leading. We’re assured that this will not be the same wire-to-wire runaway feat that we witnessed a month ago at the Open Championship. Sure, McIlroy came from behind to win the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational last week at Firestone, but this week he’s given others hope for another day.
The second way to dissect the leaderboard is a little more terrifying. Essentially McIlroy spotted the field two shots when he made a silly double bogey on a rather easy par 5 and after shooting 5-under 66 he’s only one shot behind leaders Lee Westwood, Kevin Chappell and Ryan Palmer.
Pick your poison.
“I think one of the big things for me, especially in major championships, is getting off to good starts and being right up there at the start,” Mcllroy said.
Seriously, the way McIlroy is playing right now is a sight to behold. Sure, the course was soft and there are myriad under-par scores. Sure, three dudes played better than him on this humid day. But none are chasing their second major title within the past month.
This is heady stuff.
The 25-year-old now has recorded seven rounds of 67 or lower in the first round of major championships since 2010 (Westwood is the next closest with five). He’s a combined 22 under par over his last five major championship rounds. McIlroy’s scoring average in the last nine rounds is 66.89 and he’s been inside the top five of the leaderboard in eight of his last nine rounds on the PGA Tour. Ridiculous.
“Technically my swing is in a very good place,” he said humbly. “I think the big thing for me, I’m able to shift the ball both ways.”
McIlroy was extremely quiet for the first six holes and was 1 under par. The next nine holes, however, turned into a thrilling ride that makes some of Phil Mickelson’s rollercoaster rounds look rather ordinary.
A routine two-putt birdie on the par-5 seventh hole and another birdie from 7 feet had McIlroy turning at 3 under and squarely in contention.
When McIlroy bombed another trademark drive long and straight on the par-5 10th hole, he was thinking eagle over the approach shot of only 230 yards. But he hit a nasty hook that went screaming 30 yards left and out of bounds. McIlroy dropped another ball where he was standing and hit another hook that wasn’t as severe as the first. He found it, failed to get up and down and made a double-bogey 7. Bogey at the next hole dropped McIlroy back to even par.
“Very, very hot,” is how many would explain how well McIlroy is playing over the past month, but it’s how he described his temperament after that two-hole stretch that he played in 3 over.
“It sort of knocked me off track a little bit because it’s one of the only bad shots I’ve hit in a few weeks,” he said. “What I was really angry about was, OK, you make a 7, that’s fine, but you don’t compound that error and make a bogey on the next hole with a three-putt.
“Walking on to the 12th tee, I was muttering a few things to myself.”
Then McIlroy, as most great champions do, promptly rattled off four consecutive birdies, and closed with birdie on the par-5 last that looked like it could be an eagle before the 30-footer drifted an inch to the right at the last moment.
McIlroy’s driving prowess continues to be the star of the show. He was in complete control again off the tee and missed only two fairways. His iron play was a little scraggly – he missed five greens – but that was negated because he needed only 27 putts to negotiate the Valhalla greens.
“Obviously he’s playing great right now,” said playing partner Bubba Watson. “He’s probably playing the best of anybody, as the record shows the last few weeks. Very solid, very in control of everything.”
Nasty, rainy weather is expected to move through Louisville on Friday and could make the course softer, and prone to even more birdies. If, somehow, you think that doesn’t help young Rory, dial your memory back to the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional, the first of McIlroy’s three dominant major victories.
“No matter what happens I feel like it’s a great setup for me regardless if there is weather coming in or not,” McIlroy said. “You look at the three wins I’ve had (in majors) and I’ve started really well in each of them. It’s important and it’s great to get off to another one today.”
Which is an ominous sign for everyone else tomorrow.