Tiger Woods made it sound as though Rory McIlroy played a brand of golf with which he wasn’t familiar in the PGA Championship.
McIlroy looked free and easy and saw only opportunity at Southern Hills. He blasted his driver over trees and into fairways, setting up some of his seven birdies that carried him to a 5-under 65 and an early one-shot lead.
Woods picked his spots and was never terribly crisp on a right leg he said felt worse than he did at the Masters last month. He fell apart in the middle of his round and at the end, finishing with two bogeys for a 74 and his worst start to a PGA since 2015.
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He was clearly frustrated with his play as vision captured the 14-time major winner telling a camera operator to give him space as he walked down the fairway.
“Would you mind giving me some breathing space?” Woods asked. “Please?”
As Woods kept walking it became clear the message wasn’t getting through as he asked once more, “Would you mind giving me some breathing space, please?”
Things continued to get awkward when Woods asked for a third time, “Could you back off a little bit and give me some breathing space? Back off a little bit and give me some breathing space!”
While Woods struggled, McIlroy looked fresh as he attempts to end a nearly eight year streak without a major, many of those chances doomed by bad starts. This was his lowest start to par since a 6-under 66 when he won the PGA at Valhalla in 2014, the last of his four majors.
“I think when your game is feeling like that, it’s just a matter of going out there and really sticking to your game plan, executing as well as you possibly can and just sort of staying in your own little world,” McIlroy said.
McIlroy in for at PGA Championship
“I feel like this course, it lets you be pretty aggressive off the tee if you want to be, so I hit quite a lot of drivers out there and took advantage of my length and finished that off with some nice iron play and some nice putting.”
Will Zalatoris and Pebble Beach winner Tom Hoge each opened with a 66, while Matt Kuchar and Abraham Ancer were another shot behind.
McIlroy and Woods were joined in the group by Jordan Spieth, who lacks only this major to complete the Grand Slam career and arrived in Tulsa with his game in good form. But a series of missed birdie chances was followed by a series of missed par putts, and Spieth never quite recovered. He had a late birdie and saved by on his final hole at No.9 for a 72.
Masters champion Scottie Scheffler was among those who played in the afternoon, as the heat index crept toward 32 degrees.
The difference between McIlroy and Woods was clear early in the round. On the 461-yard 12th hole, Woods hit iron off the tee that left him 178 yards. McIlroy pounded driver with a slight fade with the prevailing breeze, leaving him 86 yards.
He hit lob wedge to a foot for birdie.
That was the start of four straight birdies for McIlroy, which included a 6-iron to 25 feet for his longest birdie of the day at the par-3 14th.
McIlroy made birdie on the two par 5s from greenside bunkers, hitting a 3-iron both times on the 628-yard 13th and the 665-yard fifth. He hit another big drive on the tough par-4 second, leaving 7-iron to about 10 feet. That one felt like a bonus to him.
“You go out there and hit driver a lot, and if you have a hot week, you have a hot week and you’re up there,” Woods said. “The game is just different. It’s much more aggressive now, and I know that. But I was playing to my spots. If I would have hit the ball solidly on those two holes and put the ball in the fairway, I would have been fine.”
He was speaking of No.4, where he put iron in the rough and McIlroy hit a 327-yard drive up the hill and into the wind that left him a flip wedge to the green (he missed an 8-foot putt); and the ninth hole, when Woods’ tee shot hit a tree and left him a 4-iron to the green.
The bigger concern was his leg. Woods has said he has good days and bad from a leg badly injured in his February 2021 car crash, and this didn’t look like a great one. Of equal concern was going into Friday nine shots behind McIlroy and likely having to fight to make the cut.
The warmth — not oven heat like the 2007 PGA in August — and mild wind led to ideal scoring, though Southern Hills still had enough defence.
Only 17 of the 78 players from the morning wave broke by.
“I don’t think a major champion here has ever been double digits under par, so you know the scores aren’t going to go much further,” Hoge said. the rough here, it’s tough to control the golf ball around these greens because they can get running off so fast.
One other part of Southern Hills’ history with seven previous majors: Five of the champions had at least a share of the 18-hole lead.
Xander Schauele was in the group at 68, while Tony Finau was among those at 69.
John Daly tried to relive some memories at age 56 and with a beard longer than any rough at Southern Hills. He opened with a 67 in 2007 and was 2 under through 10 holes until fading at the end with four bogeys over his last five holes for a 72.
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