On paper, Rory McIlroy's opening round 69 was just OK. He didn't blow away the field, or even challenge the lead, but compared to his recent form, McIlroy's first round was a significant step in the right direction.
Despite entering the tournament as the defending champion and No. 3 player in the world, McIlroy was a relative afterthought this week. Fresh off their recent wins, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods garnered the bulk of the headlines. The attention McIlroy did receive wasn't for his play on the course, but a result of Ian Poulter defending him to the media.
Then, they teed it up and for the first time in a while, McIlroy looked like a two-time major champion winner and former world No. 1. He appeared to have renewed confidence as he made his way around Oak Hill, a far cry from the "brain dead" McIlroy at the British Open. Besides a new haircut, McIlroy looked a lot like the player who pulled away from the field at Kiawah last year.
It looked like vintage Rory early on as he birdied three of his first four holes. A bogey, three pars and a birdie rounded out his front nine and McIlroy made the turn at 3-under. He ran into some trouble on the backside and went on to make three bogeys, but hit a number of excellent shots to salvage par and keep things from spiraling out of control.
"Today was definitely positive," McIlroy said, via Golf.com. "I felt like I played really, really well. I thought through those first nine holes were really good. It's easier to be the Rory you're used to seeing when I'm playing well."
A 1-under round may not seem like much and McIlroy still has plenty of work to do if he's going to be a factor on the weekend. However, when you consider how he's played of late, a first round 69 nearly felt like a course record. Including the PGA Championship, McIlroy has played in 15 events this season between the PGA and European tours. Thursday was just the third time he's been under par after the first round this season. He finished tied for eighth and tied for 10th the other two times.
A good first round is a step in the right direction, but it's only a start. He'll need to follow it up with more rounds which draw comparisons the the McIlroy of old.
"That's the next step," McIlroy said when discussing regaining his previous form. "And I don't think that's too far off."