SHEBOYGAN, Wis. (AP) — Rory McIlroy found the right answers in his first competition in just under two months, and the score was only part of the equation.
After opening with a bogey on Thursday in the PGA Championship, McIlroy ripped his drive into the wind on the par-5 second and, with 286 yards to the hole, hit a 3-wood so pure that he knew his game was ready in a major way. It settled 15 feet away and set up a birdie. It was a big moment.
“I know when I start a season off, the first couple of rounds are sometimes a little tentative, just trying to get your way around,” McIlroy said after a 1-under 71 that left him five shots behind Dustin Johnson. “But that was full bore, as good as I can do, especially with a wind like that. So it was a nice feeling.”
It’s only a start — for McIlroy, coming off an ankle injury, and for Johnson, who has been in this position before.
Here’s what to look for on Friday:
NO. 1 AND NO. 2
McIlroy and Jordan Spieth effectively played to a draw on Thursday as both shot a 71, even though that’s not the way to keep score. Both are trying to work their way into contention going into the weekend, just as they would at any major.
It’s no less intriguing because of what’s at stake. Spieth is going for an unprecedented sweep of the U.S. majors in the same season, and it likely would be enough for him to replace McIlroy at No. 1 in the world. A victory by McIlroy would mean majors in four of his last five seasons — Tiger Woods, Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus (each with majors in four straight seasons) are the only players to do that in the last 50 years.
DUSTIN PART II: Johnson has the first part down. Counting his 6-under 66 on Thursday, he is now 37-under par in the opening two rounds of the last six majors in which he’s appeared.
He’ll try to improve on that Friday afternoon, when winds are expected to kick up and there will be a 40 percent chance of thunderstorms.
He said he’s most comfortable playing in the lead.
“There’s less shots you’ve got to make up. But you still have to play your game, especially in majors,” he said. “When you try to push and try to make things happen, that’s when you can make some big numbers at the majors.”
He did that at the British Open, following opening rounds of 65 and 69 with a 75-75 weekend that dropped him from the lead to a tie for 49th place.
Hardly his worst major heartbreak, though. There was that three-putt at the U.S. Open from 12 feet to finish one shot behind Spieth. There was that 2-iron out-of-bounds in the 2011 British Open when he was trying to chase down Darren Clarke. And don’t forget Whistling Straits five years ago. He had a one-shot lead playing the 18th and grounded his club in a bunker. The two-shot penalty kept him out of a playoff.
Tiger Woods could be playing his final round of the season on Friday.
He opened with a 75, and while he says he hit the ball well and couldn’t make a putt, it looked ordinary to most everyone else. He goes off Thursday afternoon in typically tougher conditions and likely will need a round under par to make it to the weekend.
If not, he will miss the cut in his third straight major. Woods now has gone six straight rounds over par, tying his career-high.
David Lingmerth got off to a blazing start for the second straight major. This time, he finished it off.
A month ago at St. Andrews, the Swede shot a 29 on the front nine in the British Open only to post a 40 on the back nine to fall back. He thought about that round Thursday when he made five birdies in his opening five holes, and had a good look at another on the par-3 17th. He missed, and that was that. But he played solidly the rest of the way, trading a birdie for a bogey, and shot 67 for the best score of the afternoon.
The advantage goes to Lingmerth on Friday. He plays in the morning.
Brian Gaffney is taking a break from his real job as a club pro at Quaker Ridge in New York. Out of 20 club pros in the field, he was the only one to break par. Gaffney had a 71 and was tied with McIlroy and Spieth, Ernie Els and Steve Stricker.
A club pro did not make the cut last year.