SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – Rory McIlroy was nervous about his game. Jordan Spieth was frustrated with his putting.
Not so surprising about the opening round of the PGA Championship on Thursday was Dustin Johnson.
He was leading.
Shaking off a double dose of disappointment in the majors, Johnson breezed his way to a 6-under 66 in moderate morning conditions at Whistling Straits and wound up with a one-shot lead over David Lingmerth of Sweden. It was the fifth time in 13 rounds at the majors this year that Johnson had at least a share of the lead.
Just never on Sunday, which he knows all too well.
“It’s only the first round,” Johnson said.
It was a big start for McIlroy, and a shaky one for Spieth. They were the main event in the first round of the final major. McIlroy has not played since the U.S. Open, out for 53 days because of an injury to his left ankle and mildly curious whether his game would be sharp enough to compete. Adding to the buzz was playing with Spieth, the Masters and U.S. Open champion who is closing in on McIlroy’s No. 1 ranking.
“It’s not that. It’s more just being a little bit anxious coming back and seeing how my game is going to react whenever I’m put under a little bit of pressure and have a card in my hand and have to really score,” McIlroy said. “Once I got those first couple of holes out of the way, I felt like I settled into the round really nicely.”
Three birdies on the par 5s, and one big par save with his feet in the water, carried him to a 71.
Spieth doesn’t usually go 11 holes without making a putt of any length, and frustrations were starting wear on him until he chipped in from behind the 12th green for birdie which steadied him enough to match McIlroy with a 71.
Considering they played in a strong wind and tough afternoon conditions, it was a reasonable start.
It certainly was for Johnson.
He took three putts from 12 feet on the final hole at the U.S. Open to shockingly go from a chance to win to a runner-up finish behind Spieth. He had the 36-hole lead at St. Andrews until he disappeared on the weekend. And the PGA Championship was at Whistling Straits, where five years ago Johnson famously grounded his club in a bunker and lost out on a spot in the playoff because of the two-shot penalty.
It was like none of that ever happened.
He birdied the first two holes. He hit 4-iron to 30 feet and made eagle on No. 16. He added a trio of birdies on the front nine.
“Today was pretty easy, I would have to say,” Johnson said. “But I was swinging well and I was hitting the shots where I was looking. So anytime you’re doing that, it makes things a lot easier on you. The ball was going where I was looking. I was controlling it. In this wind it’s tough to do, but I did a great job of controlling the golf ball today.”
The one par McIlroy made on the par 5s was as big as his three birdies.
He pulled his third shot on the par-5 fifth hole into the water, and a double bogey looked likely. But his ball was sitting up in the water, so McIlroy rolled up his pant leg, splashed it out to 7 feet and saved par.
“The only thing I was trying not to do was get my feet wet,” McIlroy said. “Because if the water gets through this shoe, then the tape gets wet and then that would be a little more than just sort of annoying or uncomfortable for the rest of the day. But it was fine. It was a little bit deeper on the right side, so I just rolled my right trouser leg up and it was fine. I just had to remember to hit it hard. And I was very fortunate to escape with a par there.”
That shot made for good TV. Good for his soul was getting that first tee shot out of the way, and especially the 3-wood he hit pure as ever onto the green at the par-5 second that led to birdie.
“That was full bore, as good as I can do,” McIlroy said.
Spieth was far more boring in opening with 10 pars, and he was far more irritated. He had one birdie chance after another on the front nine and missed them all, trying to get the speed right and wondering how much the wind would affect it.
“I guessed wrong,” he said.
And then he started to press, and it nearly cost him. He wasted an easy birdie chance on the short 10th hole by chipping 12 feet by the hole. He three-putted from about 15 feet on the par-5 11th for a bogey. After going just long of the par-3 12th, he had to play a chip because of a sprinkler head in his line.
The chip came out hot, and Spieth figured it would have gone some 12 feet by the hole. Spieth said he was pleading it for it to hit the pin, if nothing else to keep it near the hole. It hit straight on and dropped for a birdie he badly needed.
“If I didn’t get that good break on 12, it could have been a different story the rest of the round,” he said.
The wind began to blow hard over the final hour of Johnson’s round, and it showed in the scores. Of the 14 players who broke 70, Lingmerth and Scott Piercy (68) were the only ones who faced the tougher afternoon conditions.
Tiger Woods might be one day away from the end of his season. Woods opened with a 75 and was in danger of missing the cut. In the four majors this year, he is 18-over par in the opening round with a scoring average of 76.
Canadian Nick Taylor posted an opening round of 73 to sit just above the projected cut. David Hearn opened with a round of 76.