CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Something about Quail Hollow really seems to fit Rory McIlroy's eye.
In 2010, a baby-faced, 20-year-old McIlroy marched into Charlotte and took down the likes of Phil Mickelson, fresh off a win at Augusta National, and Angel Cabrera, the 2009 Masters champion, to claim his first PGA Tour victory. Five years later, McIlroy again stood in the winner's circle at Quail Hollow, capturing the 2015 title on new greens (changed from bentgrass to MiniVerde bermudagrass) and a redesigned 16th hole.
"[The golf course] went through different iterations since we started coming here, but every time they tweak something here or there, you know, it's still sort of the same place and it really fits my eye," McIlroy said following his opening-round, 5-under 66 Thursday at Quail Hollow.
Even major-championship changes for the 2017 PGA Championship, where the first and second holes were used to create a new dogleg-right par 4 and the par-5 fifth was shortened to par 4, the course still wasn't quite 'Rory-proof.' (McIlroy tied for 22nd that week, but did mange to shoot 68 in the final round.)
"I think it's the purest golf course we play all year in terms of preparation and how manicured it is. It just has a really nice feel about it," McIlroy said. "I've always felt comfortable here. I've obviously got good memories."
McIlroy can add Thursday's round to that list of good memories, despite saying he didn't feel like he played his best.
A birdie on the par-4 second hole was washed away with a dropped shot at the par-5 seventh, and McIlroy made the turn at even par. Then McIlroy caught fire.
With birdies at Nos. 10 and 11, McIlroy moved to two-under and just two back of the lead. He added three more birdies at Nos. 14, 15 and 16 and burned the edge for birdie on the last. But it was his approach shot on the 466-yard, par-4 12th that seemed to keep his hot hand alive.
McIlroy took a 3-wood off the tee, just trying to put himself in position to attack the back pin location. His drive sailed right a touch, and nestled behind a tree. He had 154 yards to the pin and took aim at the left greenside bunker, thinking he could get up-and-down from there. As it turned out, even McIlroy was surprised at his sorcery of a shot.
McIlroy missed the 4-foot birdie putt, but it didn't take away what McIlroy was able to do from his position. In fact, it was the epitome of his day. The Players champion is widely known as one of the Tour's best drivers of the ball, but on a day where that wasn't the case, hitting just six of 14 fairways, his iron play carried the load.
"Maybe just a little more dialed in with the irons. The iron play was actually pretty good, but I felt like I hung in there," McIlroy said. "I've done a little bit of work on my swing over the last two weeks and it still doesn't feel quite natural, but it's started to bed in. It felt pretty good in the practice rounds around here and I had a decent warm-up today and I carried that into the play on the course."
It was a hot start for McIlroy on Thursday. But a hot start is just that: a start.
Still, at a place where McIlroy has found so much comfort and success, with two wins and six top-10s, there's no reason to believe that start won't continue for the rest of the week.