USPGA Championship 2020: Tiger Woods shoots lowest first round in a major in eight years with opening 68

James Corrigan
·5-min read
Tiger Woods impressed in the first round of his first major in 13 months - GETTY IMAGES
Tiger Woods impressed in the first round of his first major in 13 months - GETTY IMAGES

Considering Tiger Woods has always lived by different standards to other golfers, his “happy” and “content” must translate as “delirious” and “euphoric”. And there is plenty for his army of admirers already to get all red-shirted about as the 15-time major-winner belied so many disadvantages to figure on the leaderboard at the first major in 13 months.

Certainly this was worth the wait, regardless of the absence of fans and the surreal, sterile scenes at the opening round of the 102nd USPGA Championship in San Francisco. 

Of course, Woods always has managed to bring his own noise - whether it be the roars of crowds or the screeching of headlines - and with a 68, the 44-year-old with a bad back reminded us once again why so many of us consider him to be the sports professional of his generation if not beyond. 

Admittedly, Harding Park, the great Bay City public course, was in a compliant mood early on, despite its capriciously grown rough, it’s narrow fairways, its ever imposing yet enticing Cypress trees, its marine layer of cloud and, just for the fun of it, its tucked pins. 

Pros know when there is an invite on the table and so they scribbled down their grateful RSVPs, complete with birdies and eagles even. Jason Day, the Australian former world No 1,  and America’s Brendon Todd lead the way on five-under, ahead of a nine-strong group including defending champion Brooks Koepka and England’s Justin Rose.

Woods cannot quite claim those heights, yet he did manage to shoot his lowest first round in a major in eight years and, just as pertinently, the lowest score of his group. And as he happened to be in the grouping that not only deserved the moniker “marquee” but also boom-boxes and glitter-balls, this was a notable achievement.

Rory McIlroy, the world No 1 three weeks ago, shot a level-par 70 and Justin Thomas, the world No 1 right now, a shot a 72. Yes, these are early days, but the very fact that they are that only served to make Woods’s beginning that much more commendable, if not stunning. 

This was only Woods’s fourth event in 2020 and here we are in August and not all that inactivity can be put down to the pandemic. Tipped up perpetually - not just as the icon of the game but as nothing less, than the reigning Masters champion - Woods was in the midst of pulling out of a series of events with a sore spine when the lockdown fell.  He has only played once since the restart - 40th two weeks ago at the Memorial.  Rusty but gutsy. 

“I let a couple go here and there, but for the better part of the day, it was a very solid round,” said Woods."I'm happy and content." With a new putter in the bag, Woods’s performance on the greens was particularly impressive.

McIlroy dropped three shots in a row on his front nine, but fought back valiantly with three birdies in four holes from the 16th (his seventh). But then, curiously, he went cold and gave a shot back coming in.  "It was there for the taking today," McIlroy said. "I feel like I definitely could have been a few shots lower but I sort of ground it out and with how I hit it on the back nine, even par actually wasn't too bad.

Rose was thrilled. The Englishman turned 40 last week, but apart from that milestone, all he has previously had to celebrate for his efforts of his late was his and his wife Kate’s ground-breaking foundation of the Rose Ladies Series in his homeland. Rose insists he is still hungry and this round featuring six birdies and two bogeys, only confirms it.

“Nine times out of ten, you walk off slightly frustrated because you’ve left a few out there, but today was one of those rare day where you got the most out of your round of golf,” he said.

Perhaps Koepka sounds most confident, though, as he tries to become the first player in history to win a hat-trick of successive strokeplay USPGA titles. “I can definitely play a lot better,” Koepka said. “I just need to tidy a few things up, and we'll be there come Sunday on the back nine. You know, to win three in a row here, it would be special.”

Martin Kaymer took quote of the day, if not of the year. After his own 66, the past champion who from No 1 has slipped to 125 in the world, was asked about how he coped in the lockdown.  

Koepka is trying to become the first player in history to win a hat-trick of successive strokeplay USPGA titles - GETTY IMAGES
Koepka is trying to become the first player in history to win a hat-trick of successive strokeplay USPGA titles - GETTY IMAGES

“My perspective shifted a lot,” the German said. “I always knew we pro golfers were fortunate. But compare our lives with the people I went to school with. I was at home with my Dad, something I loved the chance to have, and being able to stay at a nice home and still being able to have a great life in a crisis. Normal people didn’t have that. They had kids in very small apartments,  kids running around 24/7, with very little money to live on. We are so lucky.”

Meanwhile, Bryson DeChambeau smashed his way into the picture with a 67 that included a broken driver. The 26-year-old is regarded as the biggest hitter in the game since putting on 40lbs of bulk and that is a sizeable plus point on this course in usual circumstances. 

Playing the seventh, DeChambeau’s  shaft snapped in two after a spectacularly violent lunge before he placed his weight on the club while collecting his tee-peg. He was allowed a replacement.  “I’ve had it about a year,” DeChambeau reported. “Material is material. You keep wearing it and using it like that, you know, stuff is going to break down. I'm just glad it lasted this long.”