McIlroy sputters, but recovers for opening 66 at PGA

Rory McIlroy waves after a birdie on the fourth hole during the first round of the PGA Championship.

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The McGladrey Classic

Sea Island, GA - Seaside Course

9:33:32 AM ET. 10/24/2014




PosNameTodayThruScore
1Will MacKenzie-17-6
T2Brendon de Jonge-38-5
T2Brian HarmanE -5
T2Michael ThompsonE -5
T2Erik ComptonE -5
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Rory McIlroy has been called The Ultimate Driving Machine, a word play off the slick BMW sports car ads, and the moniker fits considering the Northern Irishman's immense power and pinpoint precision off the tee. But if you want to compare the man to a vehicle, here’s the thing to know: These days, he handles incredibly well, too.

Thursday afternoon at Valhalla, McIlroy took on the sharp corner of his opening round at the 96th PGA Championship with the skill of a Formula One racer. He was angered by a double bogey at the par-5 10th (where he’d driven it perfectly) and annoyed by a short par miss at the par-4 11th that flittered away another stroke. All that work he’d done on the front nine (3-under 32), and suddenly he was at level par, idling at a crossroads.

So what did he do? The world’s hottest golfer stepped on the gas, that’s what. He ran off four consecutive birdies, and five in his final seven holes, a two-putt birdie at the last leaving him with a tidy 5-under 66 off the starting line. It’s early yet, sure, but already you get that feeling McIlroy is going to be sticking around deep in this one.

The double-bogey 7 at the 10th – which came when he went for the green in two from 278 yards and double-crossed a 3-wood well left, over a fence and out of bounds, was startling for everyone. He’d been rolling along so nicely, and certainly fans who have tuned in to see McIlroy dominate his last two starts at the Open Championship and WGC-Bridgestone Invitational were alarmed to see his swing produce such a result.

McIlroy was a tad shellshocked himself. It had been a while since he’d missed a shot so badly.

Standing on that 12th tee at level par, he had the option to go one of two ways, and he went on offense. He feathered a nice approach that spun to 4 feet at 12 to get started, added a birdie at the short 13th, made an unexpected bomb from 30 feet at the 200-yard 14th, and then tacked on one more birdie from 5 feet a hole later after yet one more stellar approach that dropped in from the heavens on 15.

When his 12-footer from left of the cup at 16 grazed the edge but failed to fall, McIlroy bent over, hands on knees, and grinned in absolute disbelief. For a second, all the air had left Valhalla. A young fan, thinking fast on his feet, turned to his buddy and reasoned, “Hey, that might be good, for the sake of this tournament.”

He could be right. That’s how easy and effortless this game appears to be these days for McIlroy, who looks quite comfortable wearing the crown in this, his fifth go-around atop the Official World Golf Ranking. He is driving the ball incredibly well, hitting towering approaches with his irons, and yes, even the putts are going down. He looks like a guy who could go out and shoot 65 with a 5-iron and a Whiffle ball.

He even conceded that his torrid play of late was a significant factor in turning around his day early on the back nine late Thursday afternoon.

“It’s golf,” he said. “Whenever you are confident and have some momentum on your side, it’s easier to do what I did today rather than if everything is sort of going against you, and you’re struggling for form, and you have a patch like that. It’s not so easy to get on a birdie run again.”

Nowadays, it’s harder for McIlroy not to get on one of those runs. His biggest asset, of course, has been the driver. McIlroy is ranked third on the PGA Tour in driving distance, and on Thursday played alongside the pace-setter, Bubba Watson. Distance-wise, one could not distinguish the two.

“Obviously, he’s playing great right now,” said Watson, who bogeyed two of his last four and shot 70. “Very solid, very in control of everything. You know, even the shots when he made a bogey – I think he made a double bogey, as well – even those, he didn’t get upset. He just knew he was playing good enough to make birdies. Then he did. Four in a row. Pretty good.”

Very good.

McIlroy is on top of the world, and who knows how long it will last. It could last a few weeks, or even more likely, it could extend more than a decade. At 25, he is incredibly talented, and right now, everything just seems so easy. It won’t always be that way. One former No. 1, Tiger Woods, belted it around in 74 shots in the morning; at 38, he looks as lost as McIlroy looks found.

McIlroy didn’t quite know what to say when asked about Jack Nicklaus’ recent comments on ESPN’s “Mike and Mike” radio show that the young phenom could win “15 to 20” majors. Jack has been known to dole out high praise before (he once predicted Woods would win more green jackets than him and Arnold Palmer combined), but nonetheless, the words are rather lofty considering the guy owns 18 majors himself. McIlroy, though flattered, shrugged his shoulders shyly, like a little kid who’d just had his moppy hair tousled by an old uncle. Before he gets to 15, and then on to 20, he knows he first must get to No. 4. And with Valhalla soft, receptive and inviting (and incoming rains expected to make the course even softer), he is in prime position to strike again.

“People are going to get asked about me, (and) they are going to give their opinion,” he said. “If that’s Jack’s opinion … he has a high opinion of me.”

Watching the game’s sleekest vehicle speeding down the straightaways, Jack hardly is alone in his approbation.

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