US PGA Championship: Will Zalatoris, Xander Schauffele, Matt Fitzpatrick set up Major leap bid

Rory McIlroy leads at Southern Hills, but three players yet to win a Major Championship got their week off to a strong start.

No-one could catch Rory McIlroy.

The Northern Irishman's brilliant 65 set a hot pace in the first round of the US PGA Championship (full report here) and it gives him a great opportunity of landing a first Major since 2014.

But he is not alone in having an important quest this week at Southern Hills and three golfers who joined him in going sub-70 on Thursday are chasing not the end of a Major Championship drought, but the start of a win tally in golf's most important events.

Zalatoris clicks

For 25-year-old Will Zalatoris last weekend was a big disappointment.

After string three top 10s together on the PGA Tour he missed the cut in the AT&T Byron Nelson, not the ideal preparation for a Major.

"A pretty rough week, I was pretty frustrated," he said after carding a 66 to sit alone in second behind McIlroy. "Had to dig it out of the dirt over the weekend. 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 then it just kind of clicked last night. Better late than never."

Even so, he admitted that his he built his score in a far from conventional manner.

"I think I either made four or five 25-footers," he said. "It was a bizarre day. I didn't drive it great early and then drove it nicely at the end, but I think all six of my birdies came from the rough today, which is just very bizarre.

"But anytime you can put up a 66 in a Major, you're obviously happy."

A good friend of Scottie Scheffler, Zalatoris is hoping to emulate him by transferring both regular event and Major form into Major success.

He has five top 10s in 2022 alone and has finished top 10 in four of his last five Major starts. What is it about his game that suits the toughest tests?

"They're just hard," he said. "You've got to ball strike your way around them no matter which Major it is. Even at Augusta where the greens are incredibly undulating, you can put yourself in some pretty good spots, and that's where you're going to get your best looks.

"Being the ball striker I am, obviously it's shown in the first six or so majors of my career, but on top of that, I think it's the attitude of this is what I've wanted to achieve basically since I was a little kid, and it's kind of freeing in a way.

"Obviously it's Thursday. My mind is nowhere near going to be meandering towards (a win), but my general attitude is you get four of these a year, they're special, and I don't want to leave anything to chance."

Schauffele being patient

Last week Xander Schauffele played his final 50 holes in a remarkable 26-under-par to transform his week from a possible missed cut to a lucrative third place.

Great fun, but not necessarily the ideal prep for a week of resilience.

And yet, initially at least, he remained on the birdie train, making two par breakers in his first four holes at Southern Hills in a round of 68 that left him tied seventh.

"It's a score I would take starting the day," he said. "I felt like I kept the holes in front of me, was in most of the fairways.

"Haven't seen the stats but I felt like I was hitting out of the fairway most of the time. Still no easy task coming into the greens, but overall I felt like the course was set up pretty fair. The greens were greens were firmer and kind of rolling faster with the wind.

"The only way to really make birdie is you've got to start from the fairway."

He's landed nine top 10s in just 19 Major starts, but just one in five at the PGA. Nonetheless, he knows what it takes when the examination is hard.

"I take the same mentality into every Major, which is coming in with a lot of patience," he said. "I think Southern Hills is playing kind of to what we all expected."

Fitzpatrick sticking in

Schauffele might have been content thrashing birdies ahead of this week, but that was not Matthew Fitzpatrick's idea of good preparation.

"I'd played the golf course the year before and I just couldn't think of anything worse for me and my game with 26-under winning," he said. "That's just not my game really.

"Rounds like today is about sticking in, just hitting consistently good shots. You don't have to knock every flag out. You just give yourself chances, and if they drop, they drop. If they don't, par is a good score.

"I enjoy that challenge. I think you've just got to grind and you've got to dig in, and that's what I enjoy about it."

With that mentality you might expect that the Englishman has a fine Major record and yet he has anything but.

In fact, he's landed just one top 10 in 27 appearances - and that was his first as a professional back in 2016.

Nonetheless, he's in superb form with eight top 20s in nine starts in 2022 and he joined Schauffele in carding a 68, his career-low first round score in a Major and just his third sub-70 tally.

"I played really well today," he said. "Everything was good. Just a couple of loose ones coming in, but that's bound to happen over 18 holes.

"But yeah, really pleased with the way I hit the ball tee to green, and hope for more of the same tomorrow."

READ MORE: US PGA Championship: History tells us that there's a Southern Hills secret route to success

Latest news