RORY McIlroy of Northern Ireland plays the second shot on the tenth hole during the first round of the PGA Championship on Thursday.—AFP
RORY McIlroy of Northern Ireland plays the second shot on the tenth hole during the first round of the PGA Championship on Thursday.—AFP

TULSA (Oklahoma): Rory McIlroy set a red-hot early pace at the PGA Championship on Thursday, powering to the top of the first-round midway leaderboard with four birdies.

Starting on the back nine and partnered with Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth in a golf super group, McIlroy grabbed centre stage with four straight birdies from the 12th to lead Davis Riley by a stroke with 56-year-old John Daly, the 1991 PGA winner, and England’s Justin Rose, the 2013 US Open champion, in a pack on two-under.

It was no doubt the kind of start the Northern Irishman had been hoping for as he tries to end an eight-year major drought at steamy Southern Hills.

A twice PGA Championship winner, McIlroy arrived in Tulsa in fine form having recorded top-five finishes at his last two events, including runner-up at the Masters, and he carried that momentum into an error-free first nine.

McIlroy dropped his approach inches from the cup and birdied the par-4 12th, blasted out of a bunker at the par-5 13th to two feet and sank the birdie putt, then curled in a spectacular 26-foot birdie putt at the par-3 14th to grab a share of the lead.

World number seven McIlroy left his approach nine feet from the hole at the 15th and sank the putt to seize the solo lead.

After finding a fairway bunker at the 16th, McIlroy chipped to two feet and saved par, then saved par at 18 with a clutch six-foot curling putt.

The featured group, who own a combined 22 major titles, was like a giant magnet pulling in the early spectators who lined almost every hole from tee to green.

Woods, back in action for the first time since his sensational return to competition at April’s Masters 14 months after a car crash nearly claimed his right leg, wasted no time sending a jolt through the crowd with a birdie on his opening hole.

The 15-times major winner turned up the excitement after collecting a second birdie at the 14th but stumbled into the turn as he gave it all back with bogeys at 15 and 18.

Spieth, bidding to complete the career Grand Slam of golf’s four majors, was struggling to keep up with his playing partners.

The 28-year-old American had a positive start with a birdie at 12 but bogeys at 15, 16 and 18 dropped him to two-over and six behind front-running McIlroy.

While McIlroy, Woods and Spieth hogged most of the early attention the afternoon spotlight will shift to another high-profile group featuring world number one and Masters champion Scottie Scheffler, US Open champion Jon Rahm and British Open winner Collin Morikawa.

Scheffler is bidding to become the first player to win consecutive majors since Spieth won the Masters and US Open in 2015. The US Open used to be the second major of the year until 2019, when the PGA Championship was brought forward in the golfing calendar having been the final major of the year for decades.

Published in Dawn, May 20th, 2022

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