There is a Tiger Woods statistic for all occasions. Some leap off the page, such as a 68 to begin the US PGA Championship being Woods’s lowest major first round since the Open Championship of 2012. For his 15 major triumphs, Woods has been sub-70 on only seven Thursdays. Yet it somehow felt even more noteworthy that Woods used Harding Park and golf’s long-awaited return in this, its most high profile form, to outscore his playing partners.
In Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas, Woods was alongside a player for whom this venue looks tailor-made and the recently-appointed world No 1. McIlroy struggled for driving accuracy during a level par 70 while Thomas slipped to a 71. It would be folly to discount either from this tournament – as Woods knows only too well – but the old master’s rising to the occasion after the buildup of just a single, disappointing post-lockdown event turned heads.
“I let a couple go here and there, but for the better part of the day, it was a very solid round,” said Woods. The lack of major atmosphere, the consequence of a gallery-free environment, didn’t apparently impact on the 44-year-old at all.
“The energy is different,” he added. “You’re not going to have as many distractions out there, as well. There’s really no one moving around. You don’t hear the crowd noises. It’s just different. This is what we’re going to have to get used to in the near future and for probably for a while.”
Woods credited improvement on the greens to switching to a longer putter, as it limits strain on his back during practice sessions. Old age does not come alone but there is no obvious reason for putting to deteriorate therein.
McIlroy, like Woods, opened by collecting a shot. Three bogeys in a row from the 12th, his 3rd, moved McIlroy to an ominous position. He rallied well with three birdies in four holes around the turn but handed a shot back after missing a short putt on the 6th. McIlroy admitted he needs to “tidy things up” on day two.
Thomas was one under at the turn but produced a horrible double bogey at the par-three 3rd. The profanities as uttered by Thomas demonstrated that even the world’s top ranked player can be reduced to ruin on a golf course. Thomas did at least birdie the last, thereby lifting his spirits just a tad.
As if evidence were needed that Brooks Koepka is serious about winning the Wanamaker Trophy for a third year in succession, he posted a four under par 66. Even so early in proceedings, that his name is prominent on the leaderboard will draw nervous glances from fellow competitors. Even more so, perhaps, will Koepka’s sentiment. “I’m playing really well.”
There were some endearing blasts from the past. Martin Kaymer is a former world No 1 and two-time major winner but has become something of a forgotten man when aged just 35. Kaymer has slipped to 128th in the world and hasn’t won a mainstream event since cantering to US Open success in 2014. The German served a reminder of his considerable talents with a 66 of his own.
“I just haven’t played well enough,” admitted Kaymer of recent times. “I mean, it’s very simple. I didn’t practice as much as I should have. I didn’t feel as motivated as I maybe should have.”
Five years have passed since Jason Day won the US PGA, as what at the time appeared the first of umpteen major triumphs. If not at the same pace as Kaymer, Day’s career instead flew into reverse; as due in no small part to recurring back issues. Day opened at Harding Park with a 65.
A now-beardless Dustin Johnson signed for a 69. Justin Rose, playing in Johnson’s company, birdied two of his last three holes for a 66. If Jordan Spieth is to complete the career grand slam on Sunday, it will be done the hard way; the Texan is three over.