KIAWAH ISLAND, South Carolina — Even before a tee was officially put in the ground Thursday morning at the PGA Championship, there was a certainty curiosity. How would the golf course play? Would the wind blow so much the best players in the world would just spend the entire week trying to hang on? And, of course, which players would handle the difficult Ocean Course at Kiawah Island?
Now it’s on to Round 2, as players position themselves for the weekend — and in some cases, try to make sure they are still around for the weekend.
Can Phil Mickelson really contend?
Posting a score under par in the first round of a major, even as he crept toward 50 years old and then past it, wasn’t out of the ordinary for Mickelson. Well, there is one catch: It usually only happened at the Masters, where he has opened with a score in the 60s four times in the past five years.
Now, the first round of a major outside the gates of Augusta National … that’s a different story. That is why his opening-round 70, which included a 4-under, bogey-free 32 on the more difficult back nine at the Ocean Course, is so surprising.
Take away the Masters and Mickelson has posted an under-par round to begin a major just once in his past 10 starts. That happened at the 2019 PGA Championship at Bethpage Black. He went 13 over the next three days and tied for 71st.
“In the last couple of months I have been starting to play good golf,” he said after Thursday’s round. “I have had a little trouble staying present on every shot for the entire round. I thought I did a pretty good job of that today.”
On Thursday, he stood on the seventh tee at 3 over thanks to three consecutive bogeys and four in his first six holes. A birdie at the seventh steadied him. He didn’t make a mistake the rest of the way.
Still, that was just one round. There are three more left on a treacherous golf course. Can this last?
“Well my expectations are to play good rounds because I’ve been playing well and hitting good shots,” said Mickelson, who turns 51 in June. “What I did do well was I was extremely solid inside 6-7 feet. I putted really well. I didn’t make anything outside of that, but I made everyone inside.”
The last player over 50 who closed the first round inside the top 10 was Fred Funk in 2006; he finished tied for 20th.
Who exactly is Corey Conners?
OK, you’re looking at all those names on the leaderboard. Mickelson and Brooks Koepka … yeah, you definitely know them. Viktor Hovland, sure, one of the rising young stars in the sport. Even Keegan Bradley sounds familiar. After all, he won this major championship 10 years ago.
But the name at the very top, Conners, might not exactly ring a bell. But the 29-year-old Canadian can play. He currently stands 22nd in the FedEx Cup points standings and has three top 10s since March. Wonder if he can handle the big stage, considering this is a major?
Well, two of those top 10s came at the Players Championship (7th) and the Masters (T-8). He also finished 10th in the 2020 Masters back in November.
“I have a lot of belief in myself, and I’ve been playing well for quite a while,” said Conners, who has one PGA Tour win, which came at the 2019 Valero Texas Open. “I’m excited for the opportunity to play against the best players in the world and put my game to the test.”
His demeaner, even in tough conditions, never changed. Even with a lead at a major for the first time, he doesn’t expect anything different on Friday.
“Kind of smooth tempo in the golf swing and pretty chill personality,” he said.
The Koepka factor
Koepka said before the tournament began that his doctors said it would be six more months before his ailing right knee will be at 100 percent. He was asked about it some more — the impact on his game, the limitations it causes him when he tries to read putts. He shrugged it all off. He said none of that mattered this week.
“It’s a major,” he said. “I’m going to show up. I’m ready to play. I’ve been itching to do this since Augusta (where he missed the cut). I feel so much better now. I don’t need to be a hundred percent to be able to play good.”
That was obvious Thursday. Despite opening with a double-bogey 6 at the 10th, his first hole of the day, Koepka carded six birdies en route to a 69. He stands in a tie for second, two shots behind leader Corey Conners.
“I love it when it’s difficult,” he said. “I think that’s why I do so well in the majors. I just know mentally I can grind it out.”
In his own defense
Collin Morikawa positioned himself well to keep his hold on the Wanamaker Trophy. Despite a short miss at the ninth, his final hole of the day, he opened with 2-under 70 and heads into Friday’s second round inside the top 10.
“I feel like where my game is at right now and how I’m hitting my irons, it feels really solid,” said Morikawa, who made one of just seven birdies at the par-4 18th hole, which played the most difficult on the course.
As he found out last year, he’ll need more good ball-striking, and a little luck like he got Thursday, to defend his title.
“On 17, I thought I fanned it in the water, [instead] I’m having a two-putt par,” he said, noting a wind gust actually bailed him out. “So you just have a little luck on your side. Hopefully you can call up those weeks that everything kind of goes right.”
When the big names hit the course
ESPN+ Featured Groups for Friday
All times ET
7:38 a.m. — Corey Conners, Tony Finau, Matthew Fitzpatrick
7:49 a.m. Phil Mickelson, Jason Day, Padraig Harrington
8 a.m. — Jon Rahm, Tommy Fleetwood, Patrick Reed
8:33 a.m. — Jordan Spieth, Will Zalatoris, Webb Simpson
1:03 p.m — Rickie Fowler, Adam Scott, Tyrrell Hatton
1:47 p.m. — Viktor Hovland, Xander Schauffele, Lee Westwood
1:58 p.m. — Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas
2:08 p.m. — Collin Morikawa, Bryson DeChambeau, Hideki Matsuyama
For all the ways to watch on ESPN+, click here.
For the full list of tee times, click here.
Bryson DeChambeau sinks the birdie on the eighth hole at the PGA Championship.
Look at DeChambeau move
Bryson DeChambeau gets scrutinized. He knows it. Whether it’s for his body transformation or his scientific approach to the game, everything he does is picked apart. One part of his game that has always been a target has been his pace of play. He has been criticized, more than once, for being slow. That is why Morikawa wanted everyone to hear about how DeChambeau got around Thursday on a tough golf course in windy conditions.
“I think people need to give him credit, starting today, that he’s actually picking up the pace,” Morikawa said. “It was amazing how fast he actually played. I’m not going to say fast, but he wasn’t slow. You weren’t just waiting on him to figure out whatever. Kudos to him because it was windy and he had to figure out some stuff for sure. But I enjoy it. He’s a character. He’s his own person. That’s what makes Bryson, Bryson.”
McIlroy was the favorite entering this event. His first swing of the day, off the 10th tee, went into the water. He took a drop and made bogey. Worse still, he bogeyed three of the Ocean Course’s four par 5s. It is the first time he has ever done that in a major championship, which helped explain why he signed for a 3-over 75. In 2012, when McIlroy won the PGA Championship on this course, he played the par 5s in 8 under for the week.
Playing partner Justin Thomas, who won the Players Championship earlier this year and is searching for his second PGA Championship, played alongside McIlroy and matched him with his own 75. They head into Friday’s second round in a tie for 79th. That means they need solid rounds not just to get back in the tournament, but to secure a spot for the weekend.
So, too, does 2020 Masters champion Dustin Johnson. He stumbled to the finish, doubling his final hole to post 4-over 76. He stands in a tie for 98th place.
The top 70 players, plus ties, advance to Saturday’s third round.