TULSA, Okla. – A week that had been riddled with contentious snipping and thinly veiled jabs was warmed to its core by an innocent moment of self-deprecation by Rory McIlroy on the eve of this week’s PGA Championship.
With daughter Poppy in his arms, the two-time PGA champion was wandering through the media center when he stopped at an oversized poster from his victory in 2014. “That’s when Daddy was good,” McIlroy told his daughter.
For a moment, the nastiness of Phil Mickelson’s absence and the growing rift created by the upstart LIV Golf series faded, with Rory doing his best Rory. It was a made-for-television slice of feel-good without the bothersome cameras or microphones, and a prelude to what could be a magical weekend.
McIlroy’s modesty, be it false or otherwise, did come with a sliver of truth. Although Poppy’s father is still very good at golf, there is no ignoring the fact that his 2014 triumph at Valhalla was his last major victory.
He’s won 11 times on the PGA Tour since then, including The Players, two FedExCups and two World Golf Championships. He’s won and lost Ryder Cups, collected four titles on the DP World Tour and become one of the leading voices in the game as a player director on the Tour’s policy board. He also was married, to the former Erica Stoll, and became a father.
But in nearly eight years since the ’14 PGA, McIlroy is 0-for-26 in the majors in which he's competed, and even in the convoluted world of Grand Slam golf, it’s not hard to put a face to that frustration. During that span, the Northern Irishman is a dumbfounding 35 over par in opening rounds.
The manifestation of those early woes was on full display at last month’s Masters, when McIlroy began his week at Augusta National with back-to-back rounds of 73. As one national media outlet put it, “He has been, quite simply, awful on Thursdays.”
“I can even think back to Augusta, I finished three behind in the end, and I went bogey-double bogey on 10 and 11 on Friday,” he said earlier this week. “You go par-par there and all of a sudden there's those three shots. It doesn't take much in major championships, it's tiny margins.”
It may have been nearly eight years since McIlroy won one of golf’s biggest events, but he knows the difference between triumph and defeat is found in the margins, like a 7-footer for par at his ninth hole (No. 18) or a 6-footer for par at the 12th hole (No. 3) to keep a bogey-free round going on Day 1 at this week’s PGA.
Thursday’s highlights will likely focus on McIlroy’s four consecutive birdies starting at Southern Hills’ 12th hole, or his 19-footer for birdie at the last (No. 9) to put the finishing touches on an opening 65. But after a good amount of trial and even more error the last few years, the difference on this opening day was the entire body of work.
“When you get off to a good start like that, sometimes you can maybe start to be a little careful or start to give yourself a little more margin for error, but I stuck to my game plan,” McIlroy said. “I stayed aggressive, hit that driver up [No.] 4, took an aggressive line on [No.] 5. Yeah, I stuck to what I was trying to do out there, which I was pleased with.”
For the record, the drive at No. 5 traveled an impressive 369 yards, while the effort at the fourth came in at 327 yards. It was quintessential Rory and so much more. When he completed his early round, he was second in the field in strokes gained: off the tee, 10th in strokes gained: approach and third in strokes gained: putting, which included 108 feet of putts made.
It all added up to his best opening round in a major since the 2011 U.S. Open, which he won, and just his sixth first round in the 60s since winning the ’14 PGA. After spending the better part of the last decade playing catch up at major championships, this version of McIlroy looked a lot like the player who lapped the field by eight shots in the '11 U.S. Open at Congressional and in the ’12 PGA at Kiawah Island.
In a moment of even more profound foreshadowing, McIlroy was asked earlier this week about those eight-stroke boatraces and how he could rekindle that type of dominance in the Grand Slam stops.
“You can't plan on getting out ahead. That's just something that happens if you play well and you get some momentum. You're sort of feeling it,” he said. “It's not as if I went out with the mindset those four tournaments of, I'm going to go out and shoot 65 the first two days and let them all come and catch me. It just sort of happened.”
McIlroy’s viral moment with Poppy aside, the old man is still very good. He’s also older and a little more grounded and for the first time in a long time not playing catchup at a major championship.