Rory McIlroy loves life inside the ropes, shoots 66 on first day at PGA

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Rory McIlroy blasted yet another drive down the middle, this one finally coming to rest on the left side of the fifth fairway. As he headed off the tee box and toward the ball, a girl in the crowd shouted “I love you, Rory!”

Still adored, and still playing great, there was no better place than the golf course Thursday for one of the game's most popular players, who was in the headlines for different reasons coming into this week's PGA Championship.

“It's always nice to be inside the ropes,” McIlroy said after shooting a 5-under 66 that had him tied for fifth, four shots behind Xander Schauffele, after the first round.

The 35-year-old McIlroy's filing of divorce papers earlier in the week made for one of the more buzzy subplots in the leadup to the year's second major. For the second straight day with a microphone in his face, he refused to talk about it.

“Happy to be here,” he said when pressed on whether the sanctuary inside the ropes means just a little more this week.

If all he wants to do is talk golf, well, there was plenty to talk about. Most of it was good on a calm, partly cloudy morning at the course where he won his last major in 2014.

He opened on the back nine, and two holes — Nos. 18 and No. 1 after he made the turn — were perfect exhibits of how to keep a couple of bad shots from turning into round-ruiners.

On 18, the uphill par-5, he drove the ball into the front of the creek that runs down the right side of the fairway. There were course marshals all over the place but it took a few minutes for everyone to nail down exactly where the ball entered the hazard.

Problem solved, McIlroy hit a wedge back to the fairway and got up and down from 112 yards to save par.

Then, on No. 1, he hit his drive into a slope in the right rough, which has grown lush after two days of rain. With the ball above his feet in the thick grass, McIlroy's approach hit the flag and dropped to 5 feet for an easy birdie. It put him at 2 under for the day.

“I could have easily bogeyed 18 and been back to even par, and then, that ball on 1 could have hit the flagstick and went anywhere and I could have made bogey from that,” McIlroy said. “Instead of potentially being 1-over par through 10, I’m 2 under. So it’s a three-shot difference. It’s a big swing.”

McIlroy also chipped in from the rough in front of the green on No. 6, then made birdie on the par-5 seventh after hitting his drive into the rough.

Walking off every tee box, he was hearing shouts of “Go Rory,” and “Let's go, Ror!" and if there were any thoughts about the off-course news he made this week, none of it came flowing from the crowd at Valhalla.

McIlroy will head into Friday's second round very much in the mix to win in his third straight start. Last weekend in Charlotte, he made it two in a row by reeling in none other than Schauffele, who started the final round with a one-shot lead over McIlroy and ended up losing to him by five.

There's lots of time between the first round and Sunday. But after Day 1, the golf course felt like a pretty good place to be for McIlroy.

“I sort of felt like it was pretty scrappy for the most part,” he said. “I don’t really feel like I left many out there. I thought I got a lot out of my game today.”

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