KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — Rory McIlroy knew Mother Nature was going easy on players this morning in the first round of the PGA Championship and that he needed to make the most of her mercy. He did that with an easy 5-under 67 that reminded us of a skill set that hasn’t been showing its full potential in the past few months.
McIlroy missed just three greens and four fairways in his bogey-free tour of the Ocean Course on Thursday. All of his birdies were on putts of 15 feet or less. “It’s a great score to build on,” McIlroy said.
McIlroy’s first major title, at last year’s U.S. Open, came on a forgiving Congressional Country Club course that allowed uncharacteristically low scores. Kiawah Island played the same way Thursday. The wind, one of the course’s main defenses, lay still. Rains early in the week softened the layout, taking the bite out of its record-setting length. According to the U.S. Golf Association, Thursday was McIlroy’s first bogey-free round in a major since his opening round at Congressional.
“It’s a little bit softer, so that makes the fairways wider, and the wind really hasn’t blown, and the greens are still a little bit soft,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ve seen it about as easy as it can get this morning.”
The Ocean Course played 7,668 yards Thursday, just eight yards off its maximum. McIlroy said the layout didn’t feel long, though. Nothing less than 8,000 yards would, he added. Soft fairways allowed McIlroy to rely on driver most of the day.
His day started with a birdie at the 10th hole, his first, after hitting a sand wedge to 12 feet. He hit 3-iron to 12 feet on the 249-yard, par-3 14th hole to get to 2 under par. He got up-and-down for birdie on the par-5 16th and made the turn in 3-under 33. He two-putted the par-5 second hole for birdie after hitting 5-wood to 40 feet, then made his final birdie of the day when he hit pitching wedge to 15 feet on No. 6. As McIlroy said, they were five “solid” birdies.
“I’m expecting this to be the best day of the week,” McIlroy said. “I think everyone is. … It’s just something that you’re going to have to deal with, and I’m just happy that I got off to a great start.”
McIlroy, 23, famously has struggled at the Pete Dye-designed TPC Sawgrass, the Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., site of The Players Championship, where odd angles make McIlroy uncomfortable with the tee shots. Kiawah Island also is a Dye design, though the courses’ similarities are few. The Ocean Course is more reminiscent of another Dye design that hosted a recent PGA, Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis. McIlroy finished third in that tournament two years ago.
McIlroy played just two nine-hole practice rounds this week at Kiawah Island. This is a course where he feels comfortable. His form is beginning to turn around after a midseason lull.
The majors have been a struggle for McIlroy this season, though. His 40th-place finish at Augusta National has been his best this year. He missed the cut at the U.S. Open and tied for 60th at the Open Championship.
“This is the last chance you have to put your name on a piece of silver that will be remembered forever,” McIlroy said.
He became World No. 1 in March after winning The Honda Classic. He was in the top 5 in six of his first seven starts of 2012. His play quickly turned, though. He missed three consecutive cuts late in the spring and struggled in the past two majors. His fifth-place finish at last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational was his best since a runner-up showing at the Wells Fargo Championship in May. He credited his putting instructor, Dave Stockton, who told McIlroy to smile more on the course. He also changed his practice habits.
“I was working very hard on technical stuff for the last few weeks, and then a slight mental adjustment as well,” McIlroy said. “I feel like I was hitting too many balls on the range. I just needed to go out there and play a bit more on the course and see shots.”
He saw plenty of good ones Thursday.