Driver is key to McIlroy's powerful start

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KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – Rory McIlroy can make his peers shake their heads when he’s launching drivers across zip codes.

He made Jim Furyk marvel at the sixth hole Thursday in the first round of the PGA Championship. That’s where McIlroy bombed his driver over the corner of a dogleg, almost a football field in front of Furyk. McIlroy birdied the 480-yard par 4 without even needing to hit a full wedge.

“Rory and Dustin [Johnson] were bombing drivers around corners I can’t even think about,” Furyk said.

McIlroy opened the year’s final major with a bogey-free 5-under-par 67, a shot behind the leader, Carl Pettersson.

Craving the chance to win his second major, McIlroy shrank Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course with some titanic drives. Frustrated over his inability to get into contention on a Sunday in a major since his breakthrough U.S. Open victory at Congressional Country Club last summer, McIlroy looked confident again in his ball-striking.

“I sort of lost it a little bit in the middle of the season,” McIlroy said.

Since winning his U.S. Open, McIlroy hasn’t finished better than a tie for 25th in the five majors that followed. McIlroy looked like he was going to make a run at the Masters this past spring, entering the weekend tied for third, but he closed with a 77 and 76. In his title defense at the U.S. Open, he missed the cut.

“I just want to give myself a chance on Sunday,” McIlroy said.

This golf course looks like it might be perfectly suited to McIlroy’s big game.

Furyk found himself in the middle of a long-range missile demonstration watching McIlroy and Johnson. After the morning wave, Johnson led the field in driving distance, averaging 322 yards a drive. McIlroy was second at 313. McIlroy hit 10 of 14 fairways, two more than Johnson, who finished with a 71.

When McIlroy, 23, is this long and straight, he’s something to behold. He hit his driver 10 times in the first round.

“Rory is solid, and he drove it really well today,” Johnson said. “And that’s the key out here. This golf course sets up for big hitters, if you’re driving it well.”

McIlroy hit 15 greens in regulation on the way to his 67.

“It’s a great way to start,” McIlroy said. “It’s a great score to build on.”

McIlroy seemed most encouraged by his improved ball-striking.

“When you’re hitting it in the fairway, and you’re hitting it long, it gives you a big advantage over a percentage of the field,” McIlroy said. “Of course, you see a drive go down the middle of the fairway 330 yards, it’s going to give you a little bit of confidence, too.”

With his putter cooperating, McIlroy was able to take advantage of the chances he was giving himself. He said work last week with putting wizard Dave Stockton paid off.

“We made a slight adjustment to my routine,” McIlroy said. “It made a huge difference last week. I felt so much better on the greens than I did at the Open. He sort of just said to me, `Just go out there and have fun and enjoy it and smile.’”

McIlroy was the obedient pupil in Thursday’s strong start.