Birdies prove elusive for Rory McIlroy in opening 72 at US PGA
Defending champion Brooks Koepka one shot clear of Danny Lee after a stunning 63
Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland reacts to his missed putt on the 11th green during the first round of the 2019 PGA Championship at the Bethpage Black course in Farmingdale, New York. Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images
Glass half-full, that’s the approach Rory McIlroy took of it all. He’d spent an opening round of the 101st edition of the US PGA Championship here at Bethpage Black as if searching for a mythical creature. It wasn’t a unicorn or a Yeti, in his case it was a quest for a birdie; and he had to wait until his very last hole to find it.
Walking off the 18th tee, Mcilroy had turned to his caddie Harry Diamond. “I said to him, ‘I can’t remember the last time I played a round of golf without a birdie’. I was like, ‘I better birdie this last hole’. Thankfully, I did. It was a nice way to finish . . . . hopefully that birdie on the last was the turning point, to finish on a positive note and come back (for the second round) and hopefully get into red figures for the tournament.”
McIlroy’s opening round 72, two-over-par, left him all of nine strokes behind first round leader Brooks Koepka – the defending champion – who shot a course record 63. The difference was all on the greens: Koepka took 25 putts, McIlroy 35.
From tee-to-green, there was very little wrong with McIlroy’s game. Although he found eight of 14 fairways, most of those missed were marginal calls and he successfully found 15 of 18 greens in regulation. However, his proximity to the flag averaged at 40 feet 10 inches (ranking 114th of 156 players) and, until the death, the putter stayed cold.
“It was either wrong speed at some times or sometimes just a little bit of line, either way, you know, high or low,” said McIlroy of the catalogue of missed putts, revealing his mindset at the time: “The thing is, don’t let it frustrate you. Keep hitting good putts, eventually things will turn . . . . I felt like I gave myself enough chances to shoot something sort of in the mid-60s. I hit enough fairways, felt like I hit enough greens, and, you know, hit good putts, and some days they just find a way to not go in.”
McIlroy, who has used a greenbook to help him read the subtle breaks on the greens, has been around long enough to know that tournaments aren’t won on a Thursday or a Friday. He knows what Koepka has done. And Danny Lee too. But his focus going forward into the second round, and his attempt to move under par, is on himself: “All I do is concentrate on myself. I’ve been out here long enough to know that a first round score is just a first round score. The golf course is hard enough without looking at other people. I’m just trying to do my own thing.”
For Koepka there were one or two glimpses of human frailty exhibited in the opening the defence of his US PGA Championship title. They came in a failure to birdie either of the Par 5s, the fourth and 13th holes, which was just as well for everyone else with sights set on wresting the Wanamaker Trophy from his grasp, otherwise the muscle-bound American would have been out of sight.
As it was, a stunning bogey-free course record opening round of 63 enabled him to immediately establish a measure of daylight on his pursuers. Koepka, a product of the Challenge Tour before progressing on to the European Tour and ultimately the PGA Tour where he has become a Major-winning machine, claimed a one stroke lead over New Zealand’s Danny Lee, who signed for a 64.
Where others approach these Major championships with an element of fear and trepidation, the 29-year-old – who has annexed two US Opens and one US PGA inside the past two years, and coming in off a runner-up finish to Tiger Woods at the Masters – has embraced them as the stage for him to display his greatness.
And although Koepka again used his booming drives to tremendous effect, it was again a wonderful display with putter in hand which ensure his tee-to-green play was rewarded. Indeed, he used his putter just 25 times. “I had good reads on it all day. The speed control was very solid. I felt very comfortable with the putter after a couple of changes we made,” explained Koepka, aware that the race remains only one-quarter run.
“I think he is the best player in the world at the minute,” said Graeme McDowell, who was partly responsible for hooking Koepka up with caddie, Ricky Elliott, just over five years ago in what turned into an inspired partnership. “He finds a way to focus his emotions to play well on the big weeks, which is an incredible talent to have, outside the obvious ball-striking capabilities.”
And Rickie Fowler, still searching for the formula to unlock a first career Major of his own, and opening with a 69 of his own, admitted of Koepka’s capacity to contend time and time and again: “He’s pretty darned good at Majors. I think over the last couple years, it’s something that everyone has gotten used to. He’s done a good job of stepping up and playing well at Majors.”
Koepka showcased those talents terrifically, on a course – softened by recent heavy rainfall – that retained a capacity to inflict punishment. For example, Thomas Pieters suffered a triple-bogey, bogey, double-bogey start; while Woods ran up two double-bogeys in his round of 72. That Koepka managed to survive bogey-free was as remarkable as the seven birdies he produced in what was a 10th straight sub-par round in a Major.
In shooting a 63, Koepka – he also shot a 63 in the second round at Bellerive last year – became the first to shoot multiple 63s in the PGA Championship. And he became the ninth player to shoot 63 in the opening round of a Major. Interestingly, only two of the previous eight, Jack Nicklaus at the 1980 US Open and Ray Floyd at the 1982 PGA, went on to win.
Koepka showed his resilience too, most notably on the Par 4 15th, the toughest ranked hole on the course, where his drive came to rest in rough trampled down by fans. “It still wasn’t a good lie by any means,” said Koepka, who managed to get the ball onto the same ridge as the flag and walked off with his par.
“ I think I’m still learning, understanding my game, and I’ve figured it out, and I think over the next few years, I’m excited for what’s to come,” said Koepka of his game. Except, it is not just about the future. It is about the present. And, currently, no player on the planet is doing what Koepka is doing in the Majors.
Collated first round scores in the 101st PGA Championship, Bethpage State Park Black Course, Bethpage, New York, United Sates of America (USA unless stated, Irish in bold, par 70):
63 Brooks Koepka
64 Danny Lee (Nzl)
67 Tommy Fleetwood (Eng)
68 Luke List, Pat Perez, Mike Lorenzo-Vera (Fra), Sung Kang (Kor), Chez Reavie
69 Jason Day (Aus), Matt Wallace (Eng), Patrick Cantlay, Si Woo Kim (Kor), Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth
70 Hideki Matsuyama (Jpn), Jason Caron, Aaron Wise, Gary Woodland, Jazz Janewattananond (Tha), Tony Finau, Daniel Berger, Max Homa, Justin Rose (Eng), Jon Rahm (Spa), Jimmy Walker, David Lipsky, Billy Horschel, Erik Van Rooyen (Rsa), Ryan Vermeer, Graeme McDowell (NIrl), Xander Schauffele, Matt Kuchar, Louis Oosthuizen (Rsa), Joel Dahmen, Keegan Bradley, Sam Burns, Patton Kizzire, Paul Casey (Eng)
71 Lucas Bjerregaard (Den), Zach Johnson, Adam Scott (Aus), Kyle Stanley, Harold Varner III, Danny Willett (Eng), Kelly Kraft, J.B. Holmes, Tyrrell Hatton (Eng), Sungjae Im (Kor)
72 Francesco Molinari (Ita), Tiger Woods, Joost Luiten (Ned), Adam Hadwin (Can), Cameron Champ, Webb Simpson, Charles Howell III, Richy Werenski, Rory McIlroy (NIrl), Julian Suri, Bryson DeChambeau, J.J. Spaun, Corey Conners (Can), Marty Jertson, Beau Hossler, Lucas Glover, Chesson Hadley, Scott Piercy, Kevin Na, Ian Poulter (Eng), Troy Merritt, Russell Knox (Sco), Tyler Hall
73 Steve Stricker, Satoshi Kodaira (Jpn), Jason Kokrak, Charley Hoffman, Alex Noren (Swe), Shaun Norris (Rsa), Branden Grace (Rsa), Bronson Burgoon, Haotong Li (Chn), Abraham Ancer (Mex), Cameron Smith (Aus), Jim Furyk, Thorbjorn Olesen (Den), Adam Long, Kevin Tway, Adrian Otaegui (Spa), Ryan Moore
74 Justin Harding (Rsa), Andrew Putnam, Ross Fisher (Eng), Byeong-Hun An (Kor), Mikko Korhonen (Fin), Martin Kaymer (Ger), Shugo Imahira (Jpn), Marc Leishman (Aus), Brian Mackey, Patrick Reed, Henrik Stenson (Swe), Kurt Kitayama, Lucas Herbert (Aus), Sergio Garcia (Spa), Ryan Armour, Michael Kim, Ben Cook, Keith Mitchell, Cory Schneider, Brandt Snedeker, Thomas Pieters (Bel)
75 Rob Labritz, John Daly, Joaquin Niemann (Chi), Shane Lowry (Irl), Rich Beem, Martin Trainer, Rafael Cabrera-Bello (Spa), Lee Westwood (Eng), Richard Sterne (Rsa), Matthew Fitzpatrick (Eng), Pádraig Harrington (Irl)
76 Rich Berberian Jr., Jason Dufner, Bubba Watson, Emiliano Grillo (Arg), Kiradech Aphibarnrat (Tha), Tom Lewis (Eng), Eddie Pepperell (Eng), Jhonattan Vegas (Ven), Y.E. Yang (Kor)
77 Rod Perry, JT Poston, Alex Beach, Ryan Palmer, Jorge Campillo (Spa), Brian Harman, Michael Thompson, Justin Bertsch, Shaun Micheel, Casey Russell, Kevin Kisner, Dylan Frittelli (Rsa)
78 Cheng-Tsung Pan (Tai), Ryan Fox (Nzl), Craig Bowden, Brendan Jones (Aus), Daniel Balin
79 Brandon Stone (Rsa), John O’Leary (Irl)
80 Alexander Bjork (Swe)
81 Brian Gay, Jeffrey Schmid
82 Stuart Deane, Craig Hocknull (Aus)
84 Andrew Filbert