Rory McIlroy turned back the clock to the days when he screeched off the Major starting line like a Ferrari when he fired seven birdies in a five-under 65 to hit the front in the 108th US PGA at Southern Hills.
The Holywood star put on an exhibition of powerful driving, sensational iron play and deadly putting to leave playing partners Jordan Spieth and Tiger Woods seven and nine strokes adrift respectively.
While he spoke in the build-up of playing conservatively and avoiding mistakes, he was on the front foot from the start in warm, blustery morning conditions, hitting 12 of his 14 tee shots well over 300 yards and holing 108ft of putts as he aggressively took on the course.
A disturbing 30 over par for the 27 Majors he’s played since winning his fourth Grand Slam title in 2014, his 65 was his lowest opening round in a Major since he shot a six-under 65 en route to a record-setting eight-shot US Open win at Congressional 11 years ago.
“It was a great start to the tournament,” McIlroy said after recovering from bogeys at the par-three sixth and eighth holes by making a 19-footer for a closing birdie and a one-shot lead over Will Zalatoris and Tom Hoge with Matt Kuchar and Mexico’s Abraham Ancer a further stroke behind.
“I’ve been playing well coming in here. I’ve been carrying some good form. That took a lot from that last round at Augusta, I played well in DC at the Wells Fargo, and played well in the practice rounds earlier this week.
“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.
“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.
“I did pretty much everything you need to do out there today, and I am going to have to keep doing it for the next three days.”
The four-time Major winner arrived in Tulsa playing well, having closed with an eight-under 64 to finish second to Scottie Scheffler in the Masters, and a fifth-place finish in the Wells Fargo Championship two weeks ago.
“I played the golf I played in the last few days of practice, so it was just a continuation of that,” a relaxed McIlroy said.
“I think it is easier to be relaxed when you feel like you’re playing well, and you’re happy with your game.”
There was a sell-out crowd to see the three biggest draws in the game go toe-to-toe.
McIlroy played the first few holes in textbook fashion, two-putting from 24ft at the 10th as Woods stiffed his approach and made birdie.
He got up and running at the 461-yard 12th, where Woods was 100 yards further back after hitting a lay-up off the tee, blasting a 354-yard drive over the bunker on the left.
A flip wedge from 86 yards finished 22 inches from the cup and after tapping that in, he got up and down from greenside sand short of the pin at the 628-yard 13th and splashed out to two feet to go two under.
He then fired a towering approach 26ft beyond the flag at the 230-yard 14th and his right to left breaking putt back down the hill never looked anywhere else but the middle of the hole to tie with Zalatoris for the lead on three under.
Woods also made two there to remain one behind, but the 15-time Major winner struggled with his injured leg and made six bogeys and a birdie in his last 13 holes to card a 74 as Spieth had 33 putts in a 72.
“The game is played very differently now, and it’s very aggressive,” Woods said. “You go out and hit driver a lot, and if you have a hot week, you’re up there.”
McIlroy was in the right rough at the 15th and blocked out slightly by a large sycamore. But he went down the shaft and cut his 133-yard approach to nine feet pin-high right and brushed in his fourth birdie in a row to take the solo lead on four under par.
He drove into sand left at the 532-yard par-four 16th but muscled his 200-yard recovery to the front edge and made a simple par.
After almost making a 16-footer from the fringe at the 17th, he found rough left at the tough 18th, which was playing back into a strong breeze, but found the back fringe and tickled his 35-footer down to seven feet above the hole.
The putt was a quick one, but he made it look easy as he slotted it home, then birdied the 508-yard second by rolling in a 14-footer.
He had to make a six-footer for par after coming up short at the third, but after missing an eight-footer for another birdie at the fourth, he reduced the 665-yard fifth to a 369-yard drive and a three-iron to the front bunker followed by an 11-foot putt to ease to six under and three clear.
He was bogey-free since the 12th hole in the third round of the Masters but eventually dropped shots at the 218-yard sixth, where he missed his tee shot in the right rough and the 248-yard eighth, where he was bunkered left, before closing with another birdie.
“I think just happy with when you get off to a good start like that, sometimes you can maybe start to be a little careful or start to give yourself a little more margin for error, but I stuck to my game plan,” McIlroy said.
“I stayed aggressive, hit that driver up four, took an aggressive line on five. Yeah, I stuck to what I was trying to do out there, which I was pleased with.
“Then, if anything, obviously the two bogeys on the par-threes on the front nine, but it’s very easy to make bogeys out here.
“You get yourself just a little bit out of position, you catch a little bit of grain around the green, it’s tricky. I didn’t encounter too many of those tricky scenarios today, but it can certainly be tricky.”
If it was a great morning for McIlroy, it was one to forget for Harrington, who struggled from the moment he found the creek from the tee at the second and made a double-bogey six.
The 2008 champion birdied the third and 12th from inside three feet, but also made another seven bogeys, getting up and down just twice as he found eight greenside bunkers and had 33 putts in a 77.
“I compounded everything and everything that could go wrong went wrong,” he said.