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Rory McIlroy can exorcise major demons after taking PGA Championship lead

Rory McIlroy fired off a brilliant 65 to open the PGA Championship and take the clubhouse lead. Is it finally time for his major drought to end?

Anyone remotely keeping track of golf knows Rory McIlroy might be the most talented player on the planet. That, however, has long presented a catch-22 for the Northern Irishman, particularly when it comes to major championships.

Entering the second major of 2022, this week’s PGA Championship at Southern Hills, though McIlroy has captured plenty of PGA Tour victories, he hadn’t tasted a win in a major championship since 2014 when he won, incidentally, the PGA Championship at Valhalla.

And one of the big reasons for that was his performance in the first round at the majors.

Per Justin Ray of the Twenty First Group prior to the tournament, Rory’s first round cumulative scores in majors since 2015 — essentially since his last major victory — was 103 strokes worse than his cumulative score in Rounds 2-4 in majors over that same span. The most egregious example, of course, was his disastrous first round and eventual missed cut at The Open homecoming for him at Royal Portrush.

But if there were demons that needed to be exorcised in the first round of majors for McIlroy, he undoubtedly made tremendous strides in that regard on Thursday at Southern Hills.

Going off in the morning wave in the titanic group of himself, Jordan Spieth, and some guy named Tiger Woods (maybe you’ve heard of him), Rory shot the round of the tournament thus far with an opening 65 that put him in the clubhouse as the leader.

Rory McIlroy can exorcise major championship demons at PGA Championship

If you’re wondering how the hot start bodes for McIlroy’s chances to win the 2022 PGA Championship, Justin Ray had a pretty cut-and-dry answer to that. Rory has three previous opening rounds of 66 or better in major championships. He went on to win all three.

The lack of success over the past 7-8 years for the four-time major champion has never been about his game. With the way he can drive the ball and the complete skill set he brings to the table whenever he’s on the course, there’s no remote question that he has the goods to win. It’s just always been a perceived mental block that halts him out of the gates.

After 18 holes at Southern Hills, though, that doesn’t look to be present at all. McIlroy, alongside two massive stars in their own right, had the strut going as he walked the course and looked in complete control of every aspect of his game.

The numbers backed that up as well. McIlroy was second in the early wave in Strokes Gained ball-striking (off the tee plus approach) behind only Cameron Smith, but also gained 3.2 strokes putting and gained slightly around the greens as well. That backs up the narrative that he’s simply far more comfortable on bent grass putting surfaces traditionally in his career.

Now the question, of course, becomes, if he can maintain this for 54 more holes. The signs are there. He was trending in this direction coming into the second major of the season, both statistically and by the eye test. Moreover, the first round showed the confident version of Rory McIlroy that will be required to win his fifth major and third PGA Championship crown.

And if history is an indicator of the future, then McIlroy has laid the groundwork to hoist the Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday evening in Tulsa.

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