2024 PGA Championship takeaways: Rory McIlroy looks poised to break major

LOUISVILLE — If someone told you that Rory McIlroy would hit just seven of 14 fairways and lose a half stroke off the tee to open the 2024 PGA Championship, you would have thought he was on the cut line laboring to make the weekend. You would also be wrong.

McIlroy, who indeed finished outside the top 100 in strokes gained off the tee, instead sits at 5 under, four strokes behind leader Xander Schauffele and T4 on the leaderboard with an inside track to win his first major championship since … the 2014 PGA Championship here at Valhalla Golf Club.

How did this happen? How did Rory shoot 66 without successfully utilizing his most violent weapon? How is he in the mix despite struggling with his greatest strength?

Well, in a twist, McIlroy knocked down flags all day with his short irons and gave himself loads of opportunities to make birdies. One instance came at the first hole where he pushed his drive onto a mound up the right side. He had a hooky lie, hit an amazing shot from 165 yards (that hit the pin) and made the 6-footer for birdie.

“I sort of felt like it was pretty scrappy for the most part,” McIlroy of his opening round. “I don’t really feel like I left many out there. I thought I got a lot out of my game today. Some good up-and-downs, the chip-in on 6. I had a little bit of a scrappy part around the turn there, but overall … not really happy with how I played but at least happy with the score.”

The 66 is McIlroy’s ninth opening round at a major of that score or better. Greg Norman is second with six. Nobody else has more than five, which is astonishing. However, that’s not the stat McIlroy cares about. This is:

Majors championships won since 2014

Rory McIlroy

20

0

Brooks Koepka

17

5

Dustin Johnson

16

2

Jordan Spieth

13

3

McIlroy will almost certainly bounce back with his driver over the final 54 holes, which could mean a special last three rounds. He did the important part, though, keeping himself in the mix during a run that, in recent years, often led to Rory playing himself out of tournaments.

He’s been better about it of late, though. Whereas McIlroy used to always scrap from behind at tournaments like this, more recently, he’s gotten himself out in front but been unable to close.

Thursday was again one of those days. A quietly gutsy performance when McIlroy was not flowing and nothing was running downhill. Remember these first 18 holes on Sunday when McIlroy leads by four while bouncing toward major No. 5.

Underrated humility

Brooks Koepka did nothing special for 15 holes on Thursday. He was a paltry 1 under on the day and seemingly had his rig in neutral. Then he stepped up to a 211-yard shot on the par-5 7th hole and hit it to less than 3 feet. That’s when his PGA Championship began. Koepka covered that eagle with a birdie on the par-3 8th and did what he seemingly always does, which is slowly work his way into contention in the early hours of a major championship.

“I actually got kind of lucky,” Koepka said of the shot. “I was standing on a sprinkler head. I was in the first cut, but I was able to move it back to the fairway, which kind of helped. I was either going to hit 5 iron from the first cut or move it back 2 yards and hit 6 iron. Obviously not aiming there [at the flag]so it’s pulled.

“But that’s why you take that line. You’re hitting to the center of the green and just trying to make 4 and get out of there.”

This illustrates Koepka’s strategy at major championships: hit as many greens as is possible and take the scoring that gets put in front of you.

“I just stayed patient,” he said. “[Caddie Ricky Elliott] kept me telling all day just stay patient, wait your turn, and I think that’s one of the things I’m exceptionally well at. Sometimes you’re in a round of golf, you’ve just got to wait your turn and catch that run like I did with an eagle-birdie.”

He insisted that this is something that is unique to him at majors.

“I’m not a patient person,” Koepka added. “Yeah, I think it started maybe back in 2014 just when I was trying to study guys. I studied [Dustin Johnson and Graeme McDowell}. Those guys were big influences on me and the way I approach it. I played a good bit with Rory I think in ’14, ’15 too, watching how he did things. I was still on the Challenge Tour. My first year on the PGA Tour was 2015. So just trying to figure out how to adjust to getting out there.”

Koepka is criticized for plenty — even by yours truly — but one he should be commended for his humility at majors. He takes the event as it comes, doesn’t worrying about what everyone else is doing and tries not to force the issue. It’s so easy to say and so difficult to accomplish. He has been one of the best of his generation — maybe the best — at carrying it out when the chips are down.

Wayward Spaniard

If you listen to Jon Rahm speak and watch Jon Rahm play golf and believe all is well with him emotionally and mentally, then you are just being willfully delusional. Following a mediocre Masters at which he alluded to a belief he could galvanize the PGA Tour and LIV Golf, Rahm went into this PGA Championship and told everyone that he still considers himself a PGA Tour member.


ESPN

Then he went out and played one of his worst rounds in recent major history, though he did birdie four of his final six holes to reach a somewhat-respectable 1 under (given he started 3 over through his first 11). Clearly something is amiss with the two-time major champion, and he is almost comically far from truly contending at one of these tournaments. Perhaps that’s related to his move over to LIV Golf, or perhaps it is not. But it is not business as usual for Rahm, which is unfortunate because having him in the mix to win majors is far more enjoyable than not having him in the mix.

How far is too far (back)?

Justin Ray notes that 33 of the last 34 PGA champions were within six strokes of the leader after the first day of competition. If that holds, it sure eliminates a ton of players from contention. It would also mean that your champion will be one of the following 31 men:

  • Xander Schauffele (-9)
  • Sahith Theegala, Tony Finau (-6)
  • Thomas Detry, Rory McIlroy, Robert MacIntyre, Collin Morikawa, Tom Kim, Tom Hoge, Mark Hubbard (-5)
  • Scottie Scheffler, Taylore Moore, Ben Kohles, Brooks Koepka, Alex Noren, Austin Eckroat, Maverick McNealy (-4)
  • Harris English, Kurt Kitayama, Jason Dufner, Alejandro Tosti, Aaron Rai, Jesper Svensson, Max Homa, Bryson DeChambeau, Cameron Smith, Martin Kaymer, Rasmus Hojgaard, Viktor Hovland, Andrew Putnam, Adam Hadwin (-3)

Golfers, man

Justin Thomas, who impressively rebounded from a round in which he was 1 over through 12 holes, finished 2 under on the day by making birdies at four of his last six. He also said out loud what everyone thinks about golf and golfers. I know I do about my own game. Pros do, too, apparently. It was quite amusing.

“Dude, look, golfers are disappointed no matter what they shoot,” Thomas said. “That is one thing that will never change. We could shoot 56, and we should have shot 55.”

Xander’s closing kick

To the surprise of nobody, Xander Schauffele played tremendous golf in the first round of the PGA Championship.

“I’d say it’s the same stuff that we’ve all been watching on TV this year or in person,” said Thomas of his Ryder Cup teammate. “He’s such a complete player. This year, he’s hitting it even further. As good as he drove it, now he’s doing the same — just 15 yards further and faster. He’s smart. I’ve always thought he has one of the best demeanors out here, which is obviously something that you can’t necessarily just change overnight. He just has no quit in him, and he’s always hanging in there and staying patient. He’s playing really, really great golf right now. So, you feel like he’s one of those guys every time he tees it up right now, he’s going to be in contention.”

That is obviously not the problem. This, on the other hand, is a problem.

Strokes gained vs. wins since 2022

Scottie Scheffler

2.74

1

11

1

Rory McIlroy

2.44

2

8

2

Xander Schauffele

2.22

3

3

T12

Jon Rahm

2.21

4

7

T3

Patrick Cantlay

1.99

5

2

T25

According to Data Golf’s pressure tool, when Schauffele enters the third or fourth round among the top three on the leaderboard, he shoots slightly lower than his expected strokes gained number in those rounds. That should come to nobody’s surprise as well.

At some point, a golfer is either a stat collector or a serious winner of majors. We have officially reached that intersection of Schauffele’s career. 

An emblematic eagle

It was hilarious and amazing that Scheffler holed out his first iron shot since returning to the PGA Tour after having his first child. He had been absent since going back to back at the Masters and RBC Heritage last month. It’s also emblematic of the season, one in which he’s ranked first in the following statistical categories.

  • Strokes gained
  • Strokes gained off the tee
  • Strokes gained on approach
  • Strokes gained ball striking
  • Strokes gained from tee to green

While places like Augusta National and Pinehurst are better spots for Scheffler, who is a tremendous strategist, it’s also easy to forget that nobody is better at executing the shot that’s in front of him. Scottie did that at No. 1 on Thursday, and he continued doing so all day, which is why he’s back near another major championship lead.

Loaded leaderboard

I’m getting 2021 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines vibes from this leaderboard. Golf courses like this one — big and brawny with receptive greens — normally lead to the fullest of full-time hitters contending, and that is what’s happening so far at Valhalla. It’s difficult to tell right now because they haven’t all fully emerged, but don’t be surprised on Sunday when we get another traffic jam of mashers like Schauffele, McIlroy, Scheffler, Koepka, Collin Morikawa and Bryson DeChambeau battling for the Wanamaker Trophy.

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