Thursday's Winners And Losers
Robert Karlsson and Jeev Milkha Singh
If you saw Karlsson on the TNT telecast and thought, "Hey, I think I know that guy," you probably do. He has been on the fringe of contention at the three previous majors this year, tying for eighth at the Masters, fourth at the U.S. Open (where he was paired with Tiger on Saturday when Woods went nuts on the final six holes) and seventh at the British last month. The gangly Swede hit the cart path with his approach shot on the first hole and made a double-bogey, but responded with three consecutive birdies on Nos. 2-4 and more birdies on the sixth and eighth holes to make the turn at four-under. He settled at two-under, where he's tied with Jeev Milkha "The Other" Singh, who also shot 68. Jeev is probably envious of the attention--and the check--Vijay got for winning at Firestone last week, but Vijay would probably trade it for Jeev's yip-free putting stroke.
Sergio Garcia and Phil Mickelson
In this shape-shifter of a PGA, a U.S. Open strategy--do no harm--is going to pay dividends. Garcia and Mickelson picked their way around, shooting 69 and 70 respectively and staying out of the double-bogey trouble that sabotaged K.J. Choi and Lee Westwood. Garcia only hit four fairways and nine greens, but he got up and down eight out of nine times and made his only bogey on 18, by far the hardest hole on the course. Mickelson's short game was slightly less sharp. He bogeyed his first two holes after missing the green, but rallied with a terrific 2 on the 238-yard par-3 17th to claw back to one-under for the day at that point.
Too many tour players are talking about Kim as the next superstar for it to be flattery--or some kind of cruel practical joke. He's definitely not under the radar after two wins this year, but the bittersweet experience of contending at Birkdale last month before fading on the weekend just adds valuable experience to a physical skill set that's almost as complete as Tiger's. He made a mistake firing for the flag on No. 9, his last hole, to turn a 69 into an even-par 70, but Kim is here, and he's getting more and more comfortable.
Frank Esposito Jr.
We're normally impressed when one of the club professionals simply stays upright through one round in the meat grinder, but Esposito did much more than that. On a day when only two holes--the two par-5s--averaged under par, Esposito made birdies on three other holes and shot 71. The pro at Brooklake CC in Florham Park, N.J., was low club pro by three shots.
Oakland Hills' greens
Oakmont's greens have always known for nastiness, and they lived up to the hype at last year's U.S. Open. Oakland Hills' set is just as unsubtle, but it wasn't until today that they really showed teeth. A dry summer and some tight tolerances on the hand mowers made them particularly unforgiving. The field averaged nearly 32 putts per round--most in PGA history--and only some mid-round syringing and an hour-long weather delay late in the day kept at least three of the greens from being baked dead. Assuming the surfaces make it to Sunday, the dry forecast should test players' ability to stop shots on pavement.
Note to self: If you're going to be outspoken about how annoyed the players are about their off-course responsibilities at the Ryder Cup, play well enough at the PGA Championship to actually earn a place on the team. Sitting 10th on the Ryder Cup points list, Mahan made two doubles and a triple on his way to an 81. That's probably not the way to either A) move up on the list, or B) catch Paul Azinger's attention for one of those captain's spots.
Lee Westwood Speaking of outspoken, Westwood had nothing but criticism for the course setup, saying the PGA had "sucked all the fun out of majors" by making the penalty for barely missing fairways or greens so severe. In the hit-and-hope deep grass around the greens, Westwood did more hitting and less hoping, shooting 77.
Stewart Cink and Vijay Singh
Straight out of solid-player-ready-for-his-only-major central casting (see Love, Davis; Toms, David) Cink deviated from the script, shooting a choppy, six-bogey 75. As the Ryder Cup points leader, he's not in danger of missing the team, but a missed cut wouldn't make filling out that Tiger-free lineup in Kentucky any easier. Singh won last week at Firestone, but shaking in that many putts with yips as he has burns more nerves than 10 hours of German techno in the apartment downstairs. He's holding that belly putter as if it's made out of barbed wire.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR TOMORROW
Despite the weather delay, not much rail fell, which means the greens should continue dying apace. The early consensus was something like four- or five-under would win. At this pace, not only will rounds take six hours Sunday (Sure, raking the rough back toward the tees makes it harder… Harder to find balls) but we'll see something more like the attrition at the British Open last month than the entertaining, scoreable U.S. Open. And yes, I never thought I'd ever type those words.
In the last 10 years, the PGA set itself apart by picking interesting venues and setting the course up hard but playable. They left the clown's mouth circus stuff to the USGA traditionally and Augusta National lately. But Oakland Hills is setting up to be the least playable of the four majors this year, and this is in spite of the quality of the golf course, not as a result of it. You know the buzz isn't positive when players are talking about how much fairer they though the setup was at a WCG event.
We won't see a squadron of mowers taking out 45 percent of Oakland Hills' rough overnight, so what does that mean for tomorrow and the weekend? Patience and short game creativity just got that much more important. Rocco Mediate hit the perfect Oakland Hills pitch shot on his first hole--a dead-hands lofted parachute ball that came out of the deep grass like a bunker shot. It's a straightforward shot when you've got 15 or 20 yards to the hole and some green to work with. He hit this one from the short side and landed it dead. When the greens bake out even more, the difference between contending and playing fast with a marker and getting out of town will be catching decent lies around the green and being able to execute that kind of shot.