CHARLOTTE — When Rory McIlroy stepped to the first tee last month at Royal Birkdale for the 146th playing of the British Open, he was lost.
When he takes to the first tee at Quail Hollow on Thursday for the 99th PGA Championship, he’ll be the favorite.
“Rory’s probably the guy to beat at this point,” Jordan Spieth said Sunday after finishing play in the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational. “I played with him the first two days and the way that he is driving the golf ball, if he continues to do it there, he just has a massive advantage over the field.”
Spieth also pointed to McIlroy’s history on the course to back up his stance. McIlroy won his first PGA Tour title here in 2010, closing with a 62 to win the Wells Fargo Championship. He lost in a playoff to Rickie Fowler in 2012, tied for 10th in 2013, tied for eighth in 2014. In 2015, he was a tour de force, setting the course record with a 61, winning by a tournament-record seven shots, making a record 27 birdies and finishing with the scoring record of 267. He tied for fourth in 2016.
When told of Spieth’s declaration, McIlroy said his colleague, who is trying to become the youngest to win the career grand slam this week, was playing games to take pressure off himself. But if McIlroy is the favorite, or co-favorite with Spieth, so be it.
“If I’m the favorite, I’m the favorite. I'm happy with that. Means I'm playing well,” McIlroy said. “Much different than when I went into my last major. It's amazing what two (tournaments) can do. Such is life.”
Well, McIlroy’s life inside the ropes has taken a dramatic turn for the better in just three weeks. A rib injury suffered in January sent him to the sidelines three times and he couldn’t mount any type of momentum. Heading into the British Open, he had missed a trio of Open championship cuts — in the U.S., Ireland and Scotland — in four starts.
Then he began the British Open with five bogeys in six holes. From that point on, however, after getting an earful from his former caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald, McIlroy started looking like the four-time major champion that he is. The former world No. 1 made a deep run at the British Open and tied for fourth. He was in contention most of the Bridgestone Invitational and tied for fifth.
While he remains winless on the year, for the first time since late last year he has two consecutive top-5 finishes, and against some of the best fields.
“I thought I saw some improvements in my game from when I got here on Wednesday, thought my wedge play got a little bit better as the week went on,” McIlroy said at Firestone. “Putted pretty well, even when I missed putts out there, they were scaring the hole, so that was good. Drove the ball well. Sort of everything that I need to do next week, I'm pretty comfortable with.”
Drove the ball pretty well? That’s an understatement. McIlroy, 28, averaged 328.7 yards off the tee on the tree-lined South Course last week, nearly 10 yards farther than the next best average. He hit 52 tee shots exceeding 300 yards, and another that went 298 yards.
That power works right up Quail Hollow’s alley. The course is already long, and the forecast is calling for rain every day until Saturday, which will make it play even longer. And most of the longer holes call for a draw off the tee — which is McIlroy’s natural shape with his longer clubs.
And he loves PGA Championship setups. The world No. 4 won the 2012 PGA at Kiawah Island by eight shots and the 2014 PGA at Valhalla by one shot over Phil Mickelson.
“The setups are just fair,” said McIlroy, who is trying to join Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as the only players to win five majors before turning 30. “If you do miss a shot, it gives you chances to recover. If someone goes out and shoots 5-, 6-under par, they don't mind that. ...
“The tracks are always really good. I really enjoy some of the courses we've been to in a PGA Championship. They suit my style of game, they're long and not too narrow. And in August it's usually humid, and conditions are a little bit softer and that obviously plays into my hands as well.”
Seems a lot is playing into McIlroy’s hands. Seems Spieth knows of what he speaks.