FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — Defending champion Brooks Koepka might have unleashed a haymaker on the field Thursday morning in the opening round of the PGA Championship by breaking the course record with a bogey-free seven-under 63 at Bethpage Black, but not everyone was ready to succumb to the early knockout blow.
Some of his closest rivals showed that they don’t have glass chins. Or felt the need to panic.
While they might not have responded with similar onslaughts on the arduous Black Course, a handful of marquee players managed to stay in the ring and give themselves a fighting chance. They didn’t shoot themselves out of the championship.
The group, all at one-under 69, includes World No. 1 Dustin Johnson, three-time major winner Jordan Spieth, ageless wonder Phil Mickelson, former PGA champion Jason Day and the major-starved Rickie Fowler. All but Fowler played in the afternoon when conditions were a bit more stringent.
“Yeah, it’s difficult,” said Mickelson, when asked about Koepka’s early scoring salvo, “but you just have to stay in the present because if you start chasing a score like that, it won’t come to you, and you'll end up making big mistakes.”
“I’m very pleased with it,” said Johnson, who played alongside Spieth and Spaniard Jon Rahm, who was at even par. “I felt like I hit it really well, drove it good and hit a lot of greens, gave myself a lot of opportunities.”
All of them had their opportunities. Here’s how they grinded out one of the 16 scores below par.
Like Tiger Woods, Rickie started the championship with a double bogey on the 10th hole. Then he steadied himself with four birdies against one bogey mostly by keep the ball in the fairway. “Anything in the red was good today,” said Fowler, seeking his first major title. “That was one thing I was happy about, starting off with 6 and just salvaging what we could out of today.”
DJ had an inauspicious start, missing the fairway on the first hole and then chunking his second, leading to a bogey. It was his only one of the day against two birdies. He hit 15 greens in regulation, five more than Danny Lee who shot 64, but got no love from his putter, needing 32 whacks with it.
He has yet to finish in the top-10 this year, but Spieth also hit 15 greens in regulation, an improvement over the 64.96 average he had for the year on tour, which ranks him a disappointing 152nd. He got it to two under through five holes and then suffered his obligatory double bogey at the difficult 10th that he seems to make in every tournament. The Texan, needing the PGA to complete the career grand slam, slipped to 1 over before finishing in the red with birdies at 16 and 18.
The 2015 PGA champion, was two over after a bogey at the 10th before tearing off birdies at 11, 12 and 16. Coming off a T-5 at the Masters, the Aussie began the PGA with a round in the 60s for the sixth time in the last seven years.
Ranked 212th (out of 214 players) on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy, Mickelson struggled on the easier front nine with bogeys at 7 and 8. Then he birdied three of the next four holes and kept the ball in play well enough to remain in red figures. The left-hander, whose five majors include the 2005 PGA, credited his brother Tim, his caddie, for noticing a flaw in his putting. “I feel like I can go out and shoot something low tomorrow,” he said confidently, despite jarring his right elbow hitting out of the rough at 18.
The good news for these contenders is that they don’t have to force the issue and go hunting for birdies. They can afford to stay patient, wait for their opportunities.
“The tournament cannot be won on Thursday and Friday. But you can put yourself in a hole,” Fowler said. “And then you can also give yourself some cushion for the weekend.”
And then maybe have a chance to punch back.