Tiger Woods was suffering enough without being afforded front-row viewing as Rory McIlroy raced into the lead at the 104th staging of the US PGA Championship. As McIlroy was rolling back the years – a 65 is the Northern Irishman’s finest start to a major since the 2011 US Open, which he won easily – Woods provided a grim reminder of the scale of his ongoing physical struggles.
Woods, playing in just his second event since his right leg was shattered in a car crash in February last year, actually opened brightly at Southern Hills. He birdied the 10th hole, his 1st, and sat two under par after five. Yet by the time Woods limped heavily towards post-round media duties, he had signed for a 74 and was in obvious pain.
“My leg is not feeling as good as I would like it to be,” he said. “We’ll start the recovery process and get after it tomorrow. I just can’t load it. Loading hurts, pressing off it hurts, walking hurts and twisting hurts. It’s just golf. If I don’t play that, then I’m all right.”
Which, given Woods is so intrinsically linked to this sport, seems like a pretty big problem. This is early in Woods’s latest comeback process but there may be a time in the not-so-distant future when he questions whether his body can withstand golf at the highest level.
The 15-time major champion added: “I did not hit a lot of good iron shots. I drove it well but my iron shots were not very good. I didn’t get the ball very close. I got off to a great start and didn’t keep it going. I really didn’t give myself any looks for birdie. I was struggling trying to get the ball on the green and I missed quite a few iron shots both ways. It was a frustrating day.”
There was a time when McIlroy would have been intimidated by a major partnership with his idol. On a gusty first round in Tulsa, McIlroy took everything in his stride.
He had reached six under par through 14 holes. Bogeys at McIlroy’s 15th and 17th threatened to switch the appearance of a terrific round. The winner of this tournament in 2012 and 2014 converted from 19ft at the last to ensure a five-under-par day’s work. This felt significant; McIlroy now has the fast start in a major he has been chasing for so long. He leads the Americans Will Zalatoris and Tom Hoge by one. Matt Kuchar and Mexico’s Abraham Ancer sit at minus three. So, too, does Justin Thomas after a strong afternoon from the 2017 champion.
“It is a great start but I’m not getting ahead of myself,” said McIlroy. “I could easily have shot 68 or 69 today and not led but if I had played the same golf I still would have been as positive about it as I am now.
“I hit some great tee shots, some great iron shots and holed some nice putts. I did pretty much everything you need to do out there today. I’m going to have to keep doing that over the next three days if I’m going to have a chance to win.”
The third member of the event’s marquee group, Jordan Spieth, looked out of sorts when en route to a 72. His dreams of completing a career grand slam here remain alive but only just.
The 1991 winner of this tournament, John Daly, using a cart, was prominent on the leaderboard at two under but bogeyed four of the last five holes to post 72. The 56-year-old was not of a mind to discuss his round.
Cameron Smith’s 68 was impressive given it included a double bogey and three bogeys. “My game felt really good, the scorecard just said otherwise at times,” the Australian said.
The Scot Robert MacIntyre, seeking to make it nine cuts out of nine in majors, began with a 70. The world No1 and Masters champion Scottie Scheffler is one adrift of MacIntyre.
Lee Westwood’s 75 was overshadowed by reports that his long-time sponsor, UPS, has ended its association with the Englishman because of his desire to be part of the Saudi Arabian-backed LIV Golf Series. Sean Bratches, LIV’s chief commercial officer, is believed to have resigned his post. On a day when McIlroy displayed the best of golf, these traces of a conscience were similarly endearing.