Dustin Johnson of the United States acknowledges the crowd on the 18th green during the first round of the 2018 PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club on August 9, 2018 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)
By Christopher Powers
ST LOUIS, MO – The talk heading into Thursday of the PGA Championship was that there would be plenty of low numbers to be had at Bellerive, with some analysts going as far as to say 18-under would be the winning total. While that’s still possible, the field will have some catching up to do to reach that lofty number.
It is difficult to tell after just one day how much harder or easier Bellerive might play, but what we do know is that it’s anybody’s tournament, as the leader board features players with all different types of games. There’s the solo leader, Gary Woodland, a bomber who rode a hot putter to a first-round 64. Then there’s Rickie Fowler and Zach Johnson, not overly long hitters but each inside the top three, with Fowler at five under and Johnson at three under.
Close behind are a number of big names, Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Justin Rose, and several others you might not have expected in South Africa’s Brandon Stone, Austin Cook and Brian Gay. Stone, who opened with a four-under 66, summed up what everyone’s looking to do this week if they want to raise the Wanamaker Trophy.
“Got the ball in the hole as good as I could possibly do,” said the Scottish Open winner, who ranks in the top six in both strokes-gained/putting and putts per green in regulation. “Just putted beautifully. Rolled the ball so nicely. Managed to see a lot of the lines quite easily out there today, which could be quite tricky, especially with a little grain on the surface.”
Zach Johnson, who is tied for third with Stone following his 66, got the ball in the hole quickly as well, the highlight of the day coming at the par-4 ninth, where he holed out a beautiful chip for birdie as part of a stretch that saw him make four birdies in five holes. Despite his lack of length (he averaged just 277.5 yards off the tee Thursday), the two-time major winner had no problem with the 7,316-yard layout, also riding a hot putter (he ranks third in strokes-gained/putting). The soft conditions and wide fairways, of which he hit 10 of 14, give him as good a chance as anybody heading into Friday.
“I think, when it comes down to it, though, it’s kind of a hit and stop,” said Johnson. “So in that regard, it becomes easier, and I don’t think it necessarily is a bomber’s paradise just because of the way the greens are in particular, and there’s no run in the fairway. If I’m hitting a 7-iron in and they’re hitting 9s and wedges, I mean, I’m playing three yards of release and they’re maybe playing no release. So it’s not that significant as far as being that penal.”
Quietly in the mix is Day, whose three-under 67 came in the morning wave and received little attention. Like Johnson, Day was able to avoid trouble, hitting 12 of 14 fairways while averaging 322.5 yards off the tee, good enough for the second most in the field. Normally one of the best if not the best putters on tour, the 2015 PGA champion struggled on the greens Thursday and still managed to put together a strong round, which should be a warning for his competitors.
The Aussie is far from alone at three under, joined by 10 others including Dustin Johnson, Rose, Kevin Kisner, Pat Perez and Ian Poulter. Just as strong is the group at two under, one that includes Hideki Matsuyama, Webb Simpson, Marc Leishman, Jon Rahm and Francesco Molinari.
Defending champion Justin Thomas got off to a hot start, but eventually stumbled down the stretch, finishing with a one-under 69. His playing partners, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, each shot even-par 70s.