Predictably, the opening day of the 99th US PGA Championship was dominated by one word: “long.”
On a Quail Hollow course measuring 7,588-yards (6,938 metres), rounds were taking well in excess of five-and-a-half hours, the leaderboard dominated by the bigger hitters amongst the 156-man field. The combined driving distance average across the top-16 players after round one was 300 yards.
As many as 24 of those broke 71, which means 132 did not, on a day when the greens took their toll on even the most gifted practitioners. By way of example, neither of the two pre-tournament favourites – Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth – holed a single putt over six-feet in length. Like so many, both were reduced to “dribbling” rather than putting over glasslike surfaces former Masters champion Adam Scott was moved to label “trickier than Augusta” – and he wasn’t being complimentary.
RIGHT: US Open Champion Brooks Koepka averaged 313 yards from the tee and is one shot back from the lead at three under. PHOTO: Getty Images.
Still, it wasn’t all trouble and strife. US Open champion Brooks Koepka’s 68 is one off the lead alongside fellow “bombers” Gary Woodland and Grayson Murray. Patrick Reed, Rickie Fowler and Paul Casey are amongst those on 69, with last week’s winner of the WGC Bridgestone Invitational, Hideki Matsuyama, alongside World No.1 Dustin Johnson, former Open champion Louis Oosthuizen and 2015 US PGA winner Jason Day on 70.
Best of the bunch though were American Kevin Kisner and Denmark’s Thorbjorn Olesen – half of his nation’s winning World Cup side last year at Kingston Heath in Melbourne – who both shot 67. That week, the muscular Olesen distinguished himself with a series of ridiculously long drives, including one of 404-yards off the 18th tee.
And nothing has changed.
Reeling off a series of sizeable pokes that amounted to a driving distance average for the round of 316.4 yards (remember there is no run on the fairways), the 2014 ISPS Handa Perth International winner etched six birdies on a card marred by only two dropped shots.
“I was driving the ball very, very well, and that made it a bit easier,” said Olesen. “Coming in with some short irons into these greens was definitely the key to the round. I felt like I gave myself a lot of opportunities.”
Elsewhere, the best of the Australian contingent turned out to be Day, who transformed a seemingly very bad day into a more than respectable one in the space of his last six holes. Three-over par for the round – he started on the 10th tee – the former World No.1 made two birdies and then an eagle at the par-5 7th to hail himself into red figures on one-under par.
Despite that more than encouraging climax to his round, like many, Day found Quail Hollow’s combination of soft fairways, firm greens (aided by the sub-air system) and spongey Bermuda rough extremely challenging.
“From tee to green, it’s a challenging course but once you get on the greens, it’s a different beast,” Day said. “The greens are very quick and firm and if you’re not in the right position it’s very hard just to make par. Especially if you find the greenside rough because the ball sits down. Finishing with two birdies and an eagle is a really good turnaround.”
Of the other Aussies, Scott was best on level-par 71. For the rest, however, it was a generally disappointing day. Scott Hend expressed reasonable contentment with his 72, but Cameron Smith and Marc Leishman both shot 75 and Rod Pampling 77. All have much work to do to make the halfway cut.
It could be worse though. Dotted throughout the elite field – 97 of the world’s top-100 teed-up – were all kinds of disasters. Just a few: Ernie Els’ 80. Phil Mickelson’s 79. Padraig Harrington’s three double-bogeys in succession. Thomas Pieters’ two doubles in a row. Bubba Watson’s seven bogeys in his first ten holes. Masters champion Sergio Garcia playing the so-called ‘Green Mile’ – holes 16-17-18 – in five-over par. And Russell Knox’s birdie-birdie start, one that precluded seven bogeys in a round of 76.
And that was just a sample. Like I said, a long day in the trenches.