Rory McIlroy’s Major problem: A look at how slow starts are almost always fatal in the big events

The Northern Irishman’s failure to shoot low scores in opening rounds at Major Championships is a huge reason why he’s not won one since 2014

When Rory McIlroy suffered a final-round collapse at the 2011 Masters, he needed to make a statement when teeing it up in his next Major, the US Open at Congressional.

The Northern Irishman did so in spectacular style, taking advantage of the rain-softened course to fire an imperious 65 and end round one with a three-shot lead.

From there, his rivals never saw him. Rory added laps of 66, 68 and 69 to score a dominant eight-shot win and claim his first Major title.

McIlroy added three more Majors from 2012 to 2014, each time using fast starts as a slingshot to glory.

He opened with 67 (tied second after 18 holes) before winning the 2012 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, blazed into the first-round lead at Hoylake in 2014 thanks to a 6-under 66 and shot another 66 (one off the pace) at Valhalla before landing his second PGA a month later.

It seemed Rory had the recipe sussed; hit the ground running and good things will follow.

Rory McIlroy is 25/1 with Boylesports to be first-round leader in this week's US Open at Torrey Pines

But the importance of going low in round one of a Major isn't just a pattern that can be picked up in McIlroy's results. It's a strong, ingrained trend.

Let's take the four Majors and see what the last 10 winners opened up with and where they sat after 18 holes...

The Masters

R1 scores of last 10 winners: 69, 65, 70, 69, 71, 70, 64, 69, 69, 69

Seven of the last 10 started with a round in the 60s. All 10 fired under par. Here's where they sat on the leaderboard after 18 holes:

14-8-46-4-2-7-1-16-23-1

Eight of the 10 ended day one in the top 16

PGA Championship

R1 scores of last 10 winners: 70, 69, 63, 69, 73, 65, 68, 66, 68, 67

Eight of the last 10 started out with rounds in the 60s. Just one - Justin Thomas in 2017 - shot over par. Here's where they sat on the leaderboard after 18 holes:

8-33-1-33-44-1-3-4-11-2

Seven were in the top 11 following the first lap

Brooks Koepka started with a 63 in his wire-to-wire win in the 2019 PGA
Brooks Koepka started with a 63 in his wire-to-wire win in the 2019 PGA

US Open

R1 scores of last 10 winners: 69, 68, 75, 67, 67, 68, 65, 71, 72, 65

Seven of the last 10 started with a round in the 60s. Here's where they sat on the leaderboard after 18 holes:

14-8-46-4-2-7-1-16-23-1

Eight of the last 10 champions ended round one in the top 16

Open Championship

R1 scores of last 10 winners: 67, 70, 65, 68, 66, 66, 69, 67, 68, 65

Nine of the last 10 champions carded a round in the 60s. All 10 broke par. Here's where they sat on the leaderboard after 18 holes:

2-18-1-12-2-1-9-6-6-2

All of the last 10 winners were in the top 18 after round one. Seven were inside the top 10

Summary

Starting strongly is key in all four majors. Here's some stats across those 40 tournaments:

31 carded an opening round in the 60s

2 players shot over 72

16 shot 67 or lower

32 were in the top 16 after round one

Rory's stuttering starts

Now let's list Rory's first-round scores in Majors since his win in the 2014 PGA Championship:

75-76-75-67-70-79-68-72-73-70-69-80-69-72-71-78-72-74-69-77-70-71-72-71

Rory has played 24 Majors since that heady summer of 2014 when he won the Open Championship and PGA.

Rounds in the 60s: 5

Rounds in the 70s: 18

Rounds in the 80s: 1

Rounds of 72 or higher: 13

Rounds of 67 or lower: 1

Average score: 72.5

Analysis

These are a pretty damning set of of statistics for McIlroy.

Shooting over 72 on day one of a Major is fairly catastrophic in terms of winning: that's shown by just two of the 40 in the study period fighting back to lift the trophy.

Just under 78% of the 40 winners fired an opener in the 60s and yet, since 2014, Rory has managed to break 70 just 21% of the time.

A fair chunk of those winners (40%) shot 67 or lower but McIlroy has managed that just once (4%) over the last seven years.

Having won his four Majors with first rounds of 65, 67, 66 and 66 he more than anyone knows the value of fast starts.

Perhaps it's that knowledge and the constant reminders from the media in pre-tournament press conferences which gets in his head.

Maybe that's the only explanation for his disastrous first-round 79 on home soil at Royal Portrush in the 2019 Open. Rory fought back bravely with a 65 but the damage was done. He spent the weekend watching from the sidelines after a missed cut.

Worryingly, the problem is getting worse not better. His last three first rounds at Majors are 75, 76, 75. They've led to tied 49th in the PGA at Kiawah Island, a missed cut in the Masters and an admittedly impressive fifth place at Augusta in 2020.

But backdoor top fives do little for Rory. They restore some pride but he enters Majors to win them.

It's pretty obvious what he needs to do to add a fifth and maybe more.

READ MORE: Can Patrick Reed emulate Tiger Woods and complete a Torrey Pines US Open double?

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