Turns out Rory McIlroy wasn’t just spewing rubbish when he declared himself 100% healthy and felt confident about his ballstriking despite taking nearly a two-month layoff from competitive golf after enduring a freak ankle injury. Playing in the afternoon wave at Whistling Straits — under tougher, much windier conditions than the morning — the world no. 1 opened with a one-under 71 at the PGA Championship.
And the thing is, it could have been much lower had it not been for missed opportunities on the back nine and a gritty bogey on the 18th, but nonetheless, a solid start that leaves him at T24 and very much in the mix in his attempt to defend his title.
“I felt it was good,” said McIlroy, who said his ankle also felt fine. “It was a solid round of golf. Happy with the way I struck the ball.”
McIlroy admitted to feeling more first tee jitters than usual after such a long time away from tournament golf. But as is usually the most impressive part of his game, he unsurprisingly striped a drive that just caught the rough left of the fairway. He then three-putted from the fringe to kick off his title defense campaign with a bogey. However, after hitting two pure shots onto the par-5 second green in two and making birdie with ease, McIlroy settled into his round.
“Just to be fully committed to a shot like that, second hole into a tournament, I know when I start a season off the first couple of rounds are sometimes a little bit tentative, just trying to get your way around,” said McIlroy. “But that was full bore as good as I can do, especially with a wind like that. So it was a nice feeling.”
McIlroy had quite an eventful and a bit of an up-and-down front nine, so to speak. On the par-5 5th, he made a majestic par save after pulling his third shot into the pond guarding the left side of the green. With his ball in the water, Rory rolled up his fuchsia trousers halfway up his right calve. He gingerly made his way down the severe terrain to his ball and knocked the shot out of the water and onto the green about 12 feet from the hole. Not too shabby. He managed to hole the putt with a world-class save.
“The only thing I was trying not to do was get my feet wet,” said Rory. “Because if the water gets through this shoe and through, then the tape gets wet and then that would be a little more than just sort of annoying or uncomfortable for the rest of the day. But it was fine. I just, it was a little bit deeper on the right side, so I just rolled my right trouser leg up and it was fine.
“I just had to remember to hit it hard. And I was very fortunate to escape with a par there.”
McIlroy also felt lucky to have escaped the tough afternoon conditions with an under-par round. However, he just barely missed several makable birdie — and one eagle — attempt on the second nine, including nos. 11, 13 and 14.
“I think anything under par this afternoon was a decent score,” he said. “I set myself a target going into the back nine. I knew there would be a few chances, so I thought trying to shoot something under 70 was realistic.
“I sort of had a chance to do that after birdieing the 16th. I missed a good chance there on 17. Unfortunate bogey on the last, I guess. Just hit a 3-iron and held it up a little bit too much into the wind and leaked it right. But as I said, anything under par this afternoon, anyway, is a good score.”
Meanwhile, McIlroy played alongside world no. 2 Jordan Spieth, who also posted a one-under 71. Three more rounds to go until the actual no. 1 golfer in the planet is supposedly decided.