Rory kicked into gear at the opening round of the PGA Championship on Thursday, and threatened to run away from the field when he moved to 6 under par through the first 14 holes. At that point he held a 3 shot lead over his closest competitor, Will Zilitoris, and it brought to mind the famous Bobby Jones quote about Jack Nicklaus “playing an entirely different game, and one which I’m not even familiar with.” At the end of the day Rory finished with a brilliant 5 under round of 65, one shot ahead of Zilatoris and Tom Hoge. In recent years we’ve seen only flashes of what Rory can do when firing on all cylinders, most notably the final round at the Masters in April when he tied the course record with a sizzling 64 and finished runner up to Scottie Scheffler.
The dry spell Rory’s had at the majors has been marked by extremely slow starts, breaking 70 in the first round only 5 times in the 24 major championships played since 2016—his best being 67 at Winged Foot in the 2020 U.S., where he finished in a tie for 8th. The difference yesterday was the putter, which came to life on the silky-smooth greens of Southern Hills with 7 birdies—the most in the field. The last time Rory shot 65 in the opening round at a major was the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club, where he went on to a thumping 8 shot victory over runner-up Jason Day.
The players who tee off early in the day have a considerable advantage, with relative calm and greens that are at least somewhat receptive. In Oklahoma the wind generally kicks up pretty good in the afternoon, and the greens start to dry out and firm up, making the already challenging approach shots at Southern Hills that much more difficult. Thursday’s round was true to form, as only five players broke par in the afternoon, in contrast to those teeing off in the morning where 17 players finished under par. Rory will be teeing it up in the afternoon on Friday, and he will need to pay close attention to his ball flight while maintaining the crisp ball striking that has been his trademark. Having grown up in Ireland however, and with an Open Championship under his belt, Rory is no stranger to the wind—so we will likely see another magnificent performance tee to green. The key will be the putter, and if Rory continues to roll it the way he did yesterday, chances are pretty good that he’ll put some additional distance between himself and the rest of the field going to the weekend.
The Guy’s to Beat
Justin Thomas fired an opening round 67 in the tough conditions on Thursday afternoon, and followed that up with another solid 67 on Friday morning to finish at 6 under going to the weekend. Going for his second major championship, and one of the top ball strikers on Tour, Justin is the guy that will give Rory his biggest test. A few talented young stars hoping to notch their first major championship are also among the leaders, most notably Will Zilatoris (a shot behind after the first round), and Juaquin Niemann who fired a 68 in the tough conditions on Thursday afternoon. Brooks Koepka, lurking at 2 over par after a solid 67 on Friday morning, is poised to make a run as well (and like Rory, bag his 5th major championship).
The great thing about major championships is that they really don’t start until Saturday. The conditions will be as difficult as they can get, and the pressure will continue to mount until reaching a peak on the back 9 Sunday afternoon. And the 2022 PGA is shaping up to be one of the great ones.