PITTSFORD, N.Y. — For much of Thursday morning and into the early afternoon, it sure appeared as if Rory McIlroy’s early exit struggles at the Masters last month were carrying over into the PGA Championship.
And then, suddenly, everything changed.
McIlroy’s desperation 36-foot putt for par from the fringe early on his back nine went up a hill, caught the right lip of the hole and dropped to raise both a loud cheer from the gallery and McIlroy’s spirits.
By avoiding the prospect of falling to 4 over through the second hole — his 11th hole — McIlroy rallied to finish the opening round at 1-over 71, staying in the mix at Oak Hill.
“It was massive. I was just hoping to get down in two and make bogey,” McIlroy said. “Depending on what happens over the next three days and what I go on to do, you know, I may look back at that shot as being the sort of turning point of the week.”
At the very least, the two-time PGA Championship winner has given himself a chance to continue competing on a course the 34-year-old from Northern Ireland calls home. McIlroy’s wife Erica is from Rochester, New York, and he is an Oak Hill member.
Propelled by the putt, McIlroy birdied the next two holes. On the par-3 third, he hit his tee shot to within 2 feet of the pin. Next up on the par-5 No. 4, he hit his approach shot to within 23 feet of the hole and two-putted for birdie.
After a bogey 4 on No. 5, McIlroy got one back by sinking a 6-foot birdie putt at the eighth.
“There was a couple of glimmers of hope in there coming in,” McIlroy said. “All of a sudden you make a couple of birdies in a row, and you feel like you’re sort of right back in the tournament.”
That’s much better than how he left Augusta last month, when he missed the cut at 5 over after a second-round score of 77. The performance — for this year, at least — ended his chances of completing a career grand slam with McIlroy having also won the 2011 U.S. Open and 2014 British Open.
And yet, McIlroy did plenty of scrambling from Oak Hill’s thick rough on a day in which he hit just two of 14 fairways.
“I'm getting pretty used to it,” McIlroy said of his ability to play out of the rough. “Just not at my best. I’m just struggling with my swing. Yeah, it’s pretty messy out there.”
He also acknowledged feeling under the weather after TV microphones picked up an on-course conversation McIlroy had with playing partner Justin Thomas. McIlroy informed Thomas that he had more energy and was sleeping better.
“I’m fighting something,” McIlroy told reporters afterward by noting his skin temperature is 3.5 degrees higher than normal. “But I actually feel better today than I felt yesterday, so plenty of water and a bit of rest, I’ll be fine.”