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TULSA, Okla. – Justin Thomas was frustrated.
His range sessions this week ahead of the 104th PGA Championship didn’t meet his high standards.
“I mean, I was just hitting it terrible,” he said. “I wasn’t hitting the middle of the face.”
Eventually, his father and swing coach, Mike, suggested his son put a stick in the ground and hit some draws and fades.
“Immediately just started flushing it and hitting it how I wanted,” Thomas said.
Flush it he did. Thomas started his day with a bang – he belted a 391-yard drive from the elevated first tee, wedged to 6 feet and rolled in the putt for birdie. The finish may have eclipsed it as he sank a 20-foot birdie putt at 18.
On the day, Thomas carded five birdies against two bogeys en route to shooting 3-under 67 at Southern Hills, the low round of the afternoon wave when the wind whipped, the heat was at its most oppressive and the average score was more than four strokes higher than more benign conditions in the morning. It also marked his best first-round score at the PGA Championship in seven previous appearances in the event that he won in 2017.
Thomas exhibited great patience on Thursday, just as he did in shooting a third-round 69 in harsh conditions at the Players Championship. In contrast, he conceded that he lacked focus during the first round of the Masters in April, shooting 76, and never was able to make up for the early deficit, finishing T-8.
“It’s one of those things I pretty much need to suck it up and at this stage when I’m out there playing a competitive round I can’t try to get my club in certain positions and what not, and I think when I get in conditions like this, I just get out there and I try to hit shots and try to hit numbers as opposed to trying to get it in a certain position and going from there,” Thomas said. “That’s something I really tried to do today, and I feel that it worked pretty well.”
Thomas, 29, admitted that his younger self might not have handled the adversity he faced as well.
“Probably not well. I mean, I think that’s just a part of evolving as a player and a person,” he said.
Thomas also has battled feeling under the weather this week.
“I guess the allergies here are just crushing me. I felt like I had a sinus infection coming in, but I think I’ve kind of fought it off,” he said.
The health of his putter wasn’t in question. He produced his best Strokes Gained: Putting performance of the season, and his 67 in the tougher wave left him two strokes behind leader Rory McIlroy.
With his preparation for the 104th PGA Championship complete on Wednesday afternoon, McIlroy showed his daughter, Poppy, a mural in the media center that depicted him pumping his fist in celebration from winning the 2014 PGA title, his fourth major championship victory.
“That’s when daddy was good,” McIlroy said.
That cute daddy-daughter moment and the Northern Irishman’s self-deprecating sense of humor notwithstanding, McIlroy showed that he’s still capable of more magic.
McIlroy, who was grouped with Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth in the morning’s power threesome, fired a 5-under 65 while Tiger Woods limped home with a 74 and Jordan Spieth battled to a 72 in front of a massive and adoring gallery.
Starting on the back nine, McIlroy took advantage of benign conditions before the wind kicked up to make four consecutive birdies starting at the 12th hole, where he stuck a lob wedge from 86 yards inside 2 feet and drained a 26-foot birdie at 14.
Rory McIlroy lines up a putt on the tenth green during the first round of the 2022 PGA Championship. (Photo: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports)
The two-time Wanamaker Trophy winner dominated with his driver and with the exception of bogeys at the difficult front-nine par-3s, Nos. 6 and 8, McIlroy made it look relatively easy.
“That’s the quick start you’ve been looking for, yes or no?” McIlroy was asked after the round.
“Yes or no? No, no, I’d rather shoot 74 and try to make the cut tomorrow,” he cracked.
McIlroy’s major drought has reached nearly 8 years since he hoisted the 2014 PGA when the championship was held in August. Too often, he’s been a victim of slow starts. In the past eight years, his average in the first round is nearly 2.5 strokes higher than the other three rounds. In winning three of his four majors, McIlroy opened with 66 or less.
Coming off an uncharacteristic missed cut last week, Will Zalatoris opened with a 66, his lowest career round in a major championship, to grab a share of second with Pebble Beach winner Tom Hoge.
“I had a pretty rough week last week, was pretty frustrated, and I kind of had to dig it out of the dirt over the weekend after I missed the cut at home (in the AT&T Byron Nelson),” Zalatoris said. “The beauty of it is it’s just never as far off as you feel. Even in prep the last few days, I was pretty frustrated still, and it just kind of clicked last night. Better late than never.”
At 67 were Matt Kuchar, former Oklahoma Sooner Abraham Ancer, both looking for their first major, and Thomas. In the afternoon’s marquee grouping, World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler shot 71, No. 2 Collin Morikawa posted 72 and No. 3 Jon Rahm settled for 73.
After two birdies in his first five holes, Woods made seven bogeys and just one birdie. Late in the round, he winced with pain and afterward was limping noticeably.
“Well, I just can’t load it,” said Woods, who has a late tee time on Friday. “Loading hurts, pressing off it hurts, and walking hurts, and twisting hurts.”