There was an eerie quiet late on Thursday at Southern Hills Country Club. The afternoon wave at the 104th PGA Championship was playing in 30-plus-degree heat that felt even hotter, but they weren’t playing in front of a whole lot of people. By the time the supergroup of Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth had finished up their morning-wave rounds, spectators seemed to say “catch you later” knowing there were three more days of more fan-friendly conditions coming.
Yet even if the first-round landed with a bit of a whimper, it wasn’t without drama and intrigue. McIlroy ended his infamous first-round Major slump by shooting 65; can he keep the momentum going? Tiger hobbled to an opening-round 74; can Tiger bounce back? More difficult conditions in the afternoon meant for tougher scoring; are those from the Thursday afternoon wave victims of the bad side of the draw?
With that, here are the 11 biggest surprises from the first round of the PGA Championship.
Southern Hills was gettable…
There are rarely course set-up issues with this championship. No integrity of par nonsense or circling a winning score aspiration and doing whatever it takes to get there. The PGA of America officials see what the course gives them and goes with it. They let Bethpage be a beast, allowed the nuances of TPC Harding Park to speak for themselves, were fine with the field burning Bellerive to the ground. Today, that meant letting the slopes, not the speed, be the greens’ defences at Southern Hills, and the set-up accounted for strong winds in the afternoon forecast with pin placements that erred on the side of caution. The upshot of these decisions made the course somewhat vulnerable in the morning as the winds decided to sleep in. Needless to say, they should consider themselves lucky; it might not get any easier over the next two days.
…until the afternoon, that is
Whether it was the heat (ehhh) or the wind (almost definitely), we saw a big disparity in performances between the morning and afternoon waves. According to Data Golf, that disparity was a difference of more than a full stroke, and you don’t have to get too deep into the numbers to see the results. A look at the top 20 shows 16 players from the morning wave, and just four – Australia’s Lucas Herbert, plus Justin Thomas, Matt Fitzpatrick and Patton Kizzire – from the afternoon. Those lucky players will all start in the afternoon wave on Friday, and while the concept of switching is to theoretically balance the breaks they get from mother nature, we know that Mother Nature doesn’t always co-operate. The Friday forecast indicates that the afternoon-morning side of the draw is about to get doubly stiffed – winds gusting to 30 kilometres per hour in the morning will give way to calmer conditions in the afternoon, and late rain may soften the greens for the afternoon wave. So if you’re looking for justice here, look elsewhere.
Tiger looked gassed and hobbled
Look, we get it. Everyone is happy Tiger Woods is back, and as an extension, wants him to be “BACK”. But sometimes that collective desire obscures the obvious, so we say this with our respect to those in attendance at Southern Hills – anyone who thinks Woods looked physically fine on Thursday morning is guilty of selective perception. There were instances when he did look OK, where his gait had vitality and purpose and his swing was compact and smooth. There were plenty of other times, however, where he looked very much like the man who had experienced the things he’s experienced in the past 15 months. Which is fine! That he’s even here is a miracle. But, physically speaking, today was a reminder this is still a Woods in the recovery process.
The fine folks who call Tulsa home are tougher than you, because anyone who willingly sets up shop in this overheated toaster has an inner fortitude that we will never know. We heard the horror stories from the 2007 PGA, but that was August; certainly, May would bring tamer conditions. Technically we were correct, but tame in Tulsa still feels like running on a treadmill in three wool jumpers while shooting back shots of Tabasco.
All right, we should have already known this, but he did stumble down the stretch at the Players Championship (and got real lucky with that Sunday shot at 17) and fell apart on the final nine at the Masters. So when Smith opened with a two-over front nine that included two bogeys and a double, we assumed the Queenslander was heading for a quick exit. Instead Smith answered, and answered with vigour, making five birdies over his first seven holes to catapult near the lead with a 68. There is a long, long way to go, but credit Smith for keeping his championship from going sideways.
Spieth’s Slam will have to wait
Bad rounds happen. But Spieth came in hot and this course was supposed to be tailored to his game, and though he has a chance to bounce back on Friday, he missed a prime-time opportunity to make a move in the gettable conditions this morning in shooting a two-over 72. Frankly it was just one of those days when even the best players have poor breaks and out-of-sync swings and putts that say the cup has posted a “Sorry, we’re closed” sign. Save for a miracle, his Grand Slam will have to wait another year.
Brooks Koepka is very much not his old self
There was a time when Koepka seemed to own this event, but that time is definitively past. His titles in 2018 and 2019 felt like a distant memory on Thursday, when he started poorly with a bogey at the first and only got worse, stumbling to a front-nine 40. A late look at his strokes-gained stats is close to agonising; he was 144th in the field off the tee, 137th tee to green and 141st around the green. His best stat was putting, where he was barely average at 67th. It took him four holes to hit a fairway, and though he also managed a green in regulation on the fourth, he three-putted for his third bogey of the day. In all, he hit just two fairways on the front, and though he played better on his back nine (even-par 35), it was far too late to salvage anything from a disastrous round of five-over 75.
Uh… congrats to John Daly?
The short game importance was wildly overrated
As a preface this could change as the tournament progresses, but a number of experts believed short-game dexterity – specifically work around the greens – was paramount this week. Instead, Southern Hills proved it remains a shotmaker’s course above all else on the opening morning, with those on the leaderboard making the climb off the tee and in approach. Yes, putting still matters, as McIlroy was lights-out on the dancefloors, and missing greens could become more routine with stronger wind. Still, if the first wave is any indication, the tee-to-green game is what will decide this tournament.
Club professional fireworks
The PGA of America is referring to this year’s gang of club professionals in the PGA field as the “Team of 20”, and two of them created some buzz in the afternoon, starting with Jesse Mueller and this extremely memorable first hole of his PGA Championship career:
He cooled off on the back nine, but the club pro baton was briefly carried by Alex Beach, who made an appearance on the leaderboard while bouncing back between one-under and even-par through his first 12 holes. On the leaderboard in the media centre, all players are designated by their national flag, with the exception of the club pros, whose “flag” is the number 20 on a black background. If they are something akin to a sovereign nation this week, a few of their members acquitted themselves well… and, as it turns out, more than a few beat Brooks Koepka.