Thorbjorn Olesen slips under the radar to get his nose in front
Jordan Spieth rallies late on to keep his Grand Slam hopes in sight
Thorbjorn Olesen of Denmark plays out of the bunker on the 16th hole during the first round of the US PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Golf Club in Charlotte, North Carolina. Photograph: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
Whatever about Jordan Spieth’s potential date with destiny, the first round of this 99th edition of the US PGA constituted a severe examination on a remodelled Quail Hollow; a makeover that kept its old aesthetics but added sinister elements, especially in escaping the clinging Bermuda rough when players were required to combine the mental attribute of patience with physical qualities of strength.
The challenges were everywhere, it seemed. The heavy rain in the run-up to the championship meant softened fairways gave up a fair share of mud balls, while the greenside rough tested both the patience and creativity of players in manufacturing rescue shots.
As for the greens? The underground SubAir system ensured rock-hard surfaces, with some difficult pin placements exacerbating the challenge.
Denmark’s Thorbjorn Olesen, a four-time winner on the European Tour, sneaked in under the radar to sign for a 67, four under par, that gave him a place atop the leaderboard. American Kevin Kisner joined him late in the day thanks to birdies at three of his last five holes.
Among those a stroke behind was American Chris Stroud, who contrived to impressively work his way around all 18 holes without incurring a bogey or anything worse on his card. US Open champion Brooks Koepka carded four birdies in his final seven holes to also card a 68, while Grayson Murray was popular with the North Carolina crowds, the 23-year-old from the state capital Raleigh backing up the form that saw him claim his breakthrough PGA Tour win at the recent Barbasol Championship to also get to three under.
Rory McIlroy was one of those to discover the course’s wrath on the back nine. A two-time winner of the Wells Fargo here prior to its renovation, the Northern Irishman was manoeuvring his way into a challenging position as he headed towards the tough closing three holes known as the Green Mile only to stumble as expectations rose.
Two under par on his round through 12 holes, the wheels then came off.
McIlroy seemed to lose concentration and would suffer three dropped shots in two holes: a bogey at the 13th and a double-bogey at the driveable par-4 14th, where he pulled his tee shot into the lake, proved costly.
A failure to birdie the easiest hole on the course, the par-5 15th, only rubbed further salt into the wound. McIlroy made par through the final stretch of three holes to sign for a 72, one over.
British Open champion Spieth, chasing the final leg of the career Grand Slam, and bidding for back-to-back Majors after that win last month at Royal Birkdale, had no way of sneaking in under the radar.
Watching on from inside the ropes was his friend, swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time. “He’s a good friend and a mentor,” said Spieth, who explained the two had talked about “a lot of mental approach and preparation stuff, a lot of things that I will probably just keep to myself”.
Ironically, it was Spieth’s putter – so often his saviour – which misbehaved. The 24-year-old Texan had the putter in his hands for 33 putts while, in contrast, his driving was exemplary.
Spieth found 10 of 14 fairways, averaging 298 yards in driving distance, but struggled on the greens: “I wasn’t frustrated. I hit some good putts that missed. I burned a lot of edges.”
Now in pursuit, Spieth is aware that the task is tougher. “It’s much easier when you are on the front page of the leaderboard than it is coming from behind. Given it’s the first round, I know I’m still in it but I know that [the second] round becomes that much more important to work my way and stay in it. I’ve got to make up ground,” he admitted, with a degree of honesty.
On a day when the storm fronts moved clear of the area, although the forecast is for a return during the second round, players ground their way around the examination.
Although the vagaries of the set-up were exemplified by Pádraig Harrington’s woes in running up an unwanted hat-trick of double-bogeys from the 15th to ruin any aspirations he’d entertained of adding a second Wanamaker Trophy to his 2008 success. Phil Mickelson later joined Harrington in signing for a 79.
There were no such worries for Olesen, the 27-year-old Dane who graduated through the developmental mini-tours in Scandinavia and then the Challenge Tour before becoming a force on the main circuit as he shot an opening round that allowed him to think of potentially making an even bigger leap to being a Major champion.
What does he need to do to achieve that ambition?
“The key right now to my rounds is just getting that driver going, and then I feel I’m in good position with the rest of my game . . . I just have to stay relaxed the next few days, keep the ball in the fairway and then I know I can hit it close and make some birdies,” said Olesen.