PGA Championship: Rory McIlroy in position early while eyeing end to major drought at Valhalla

Rory McIlroy looked and sounded a bit disappointed walking off the final green on Thursday afternoon at Valhalla Golf Club, though he had no reason to be.

While it was another chaotic week for McIlroy in the lead up to the PGA Championship, he’s once again in the mix at a major — which is something he hasn’t won since 2014, the last time the PGA Championship was played in Louisville.

McIlroy posted a 5-under 66 to kick off the second major championship of the year on Thursday afternoon, which had him in a tie for third when he entered the clubhouse. He made four birdies on his back nine, including a chip-in save during a run of three straight birdies, in what was one of his best opening rounds at a major since his last victory. It was also his 19th round of a 66 or better at a major, which is more than everyone but Tiger Woods has had in the last 30 years.

"I had a little bit of a scrappy part around the turn there, but overall really happy with — not really happy with how I played, but at least happy with the score," McIlroy said.

McIlroy’s major championship drought has been haunting him for years now. He came close at the U.S. Open last year, where he finished in second in Los Angeles, and he finished inside the top 10 in all four majors during the 2022 campaign. His opening rounds at majors have been much better lately, too.

Since his win at Valhalla in 2014, McIlroy has gone a combined 12-over in opening major rounds. But in his last 12 outings, including Thursday, that figure has dropped to an incredible 23-under. While that hasn’t translated into a win, it’s undoubtedly made a big difference.

Still, the No. 2-ranked golfer in the world has been unable to get over the hump and win a major. He's done just about everything else possible since his two major titles during the 2014 season, including winning 17 times on the PGA Tour, leading Europe to multiple Ryder Cup wins and becoming the face of the Tour in its fight against LIV Golf. But no major.

With everything he's been dealing with off the course — McIlroy filed for divorce from his wife, Erica, in the days leading up to this week's tournament, and he was once again hit with a barrage of questions regarding the Tour's potential deal with Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund and LIV Golf — you wouldn't have known it on Thursday.

McIlroy’s lone slip of the day came right around the turn, which he ended up managing extremely well. His only bogey came at the 17th, when he landed in a greenside bunker and just missed a par putt. He then saved himself after hitting his drive in the water at the 18th, with a perfect up-and-down par save after taking a drop. His approach at the first drilled the flagstick hard and stopped close to the cup, too, which set up a birdie to open his back nine.

"It was huge. I could have easily bogeyed 18 and been back to even par, and then again, that ball on 1 could have hit the flagstick and went anywhere," he said of that three-hole stretch. "I could have made bogey from that. Potentially being 1-over par through 10, I'm 2-under. So it's a three-shot difference. It's a big swing."

McIlroy still has a ways to go in order to finally win a major again. It would be fitting if he could pull that off at Valhalla, though he'll have to catch Xander Schauffele — who set a new course record with a 9-under 62 in the early wave on Thursday — and survive the rest of the weekend. Oh, and top-ranked Scottie Scheffler holed out for eagle on his first hole of the day in the afternoon wave.

Regardless, McIlroy is just excited to be playing again. By all accounts, that’s the simplest thing to focus on in his life right now.

"It's always nice to be inside the ropes," he said simply. "Happy to be here."

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