SAN FRANCISCO – By now, it is becoming all too familiar.
The starter stepped to the microphone and kept to the PGA Championship tradition afforded its champions. One player gets the longest introduction. “Now on the tee, the 1999, 2000, 2006 and 2007 PGA Champion … Tiger Woods.”
And then silence.
It’s the eerie product of golf amid a pandemic, and even after two months of no spectators, the quiet can be jarring.
Also familiar – Brooks Koepka bringing his best to the majors.
Jason Day and Brendon Todd wound up in a share of the lead Thursday after an opening round packed with action, just not cheers. Each posted a 5-under 65 at Harding Park, where fog gave way to the sun and the wind eased just enough to make the public course accessible to reasonable scoring.
The one constant appears to be Koepka.
Just two weeks after he missed a cut and was so frustrated he said he heaved a club 70 yards during practice, he powered his way to six birdies for a 66 that left him in a large group one shot behind.
“It’s only 18 holes right now,” Koepka said. “I feel good. I feel confident. I’m excited for the next three days. I think I can definitely play a lot better. Just need to tidy a few things up, and we’ll be there come Sunday on the back nine.”
Day, trying to emerge from a slump that has kept him from winning since 2018 and contending in majors since 2016, hit an approach to 6 feet for birdie on No. 9, the second-toughest hole on the course at 518 yards for a par 4 at sea level.
Todd’s round was equally impressive. Playing in the afternoon, as the wind strengthened, Todd made seven birdies and finished with a 10-foot par putt.
Koepka is the two-time defending champion, presented the opportunity this week to become only the seventh player in the 160-year history of major championship golf to win the same major three years in a row. It was last done 64 years ago.
He’s still a little annoyed that he missed a similar chance last year down the Pacific coast at Pebble Beach, when he finished runner-up in his bid for a third straight U.S. Open.
Koepka hasn’t won in more than a year. His left knee has been bothering him since last August. No matter. After a slow start, he quickly moved his way up the leaderboard and stayed there with a series of key putts for par – and one 12-footer for bogey – that gave him an ideal start to this major.
He was at 66 with eight other players, a list that included former major winners Justin Rose, Martin Kaymer and Zach Johnson, rising star Xander Schauffele and tour rookie Scottie Scheffler.
Adam Hadwin of Abbotsford, B.C., was tied for 21st after a 2-under 68 round. Corey Conners (69) of Listowel, Ont., was tied for 36th, Mackenzie Hughes (73) of Dundas, Ont., was tied for 109th, and Nick Taylor (76) of Abbotsford was tied at 145th.
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Woods ran off three birdies in a four-hole stretch toward the end of his round that offset a few mistakes. He opened with a 68, a solid start for a 15-time major champion who has played just one tournament in the last six months.
Woods put a new putter into play – this one is a little longer, which he says helps him practice longer without straining his surgically repaired back – and it came in handy. He made a 30-foot birdie early. He was most pleased with a 20-foot par putt on No. 18 as he made the turn. And he was thrilled with the weather.
“I thought anything today in the red was going to be good,” Woods said.
In this case, there was a lot of good to go around. Just under one-third of the field –47 players – broke par. That included Bryson DeChambeau, who broke his driver on the seventh hole after another vicious swing. Oddly enough, it finally gave way when he leaned on it ever so slightly while picking up his tee.
He was able to replace it and challenged the lead – he was 4 under through 10 – until he slid back to a 68.
Instead of the wind and chill and the thick marine layer, it was pleasant enough to make this feel like a casual round of golf.
It sounded like that, too.
Woods is used to tournament golf in the COVID-19 era. Spectators have not been allowed at any tournament since the PGA Tour returned two months ago. It’s not less strange.
“It still funny,” Rory McIlroy said. “You know, `99, 2000, 2006, 2007 PGA champion, Tiger Woods. And then there’s nothing. That’s pretty interesting. That’s definitely different.”
McIlroy, Woods and Justin Thomas, the No. 1 player in the world, each started with a birdie on No. 10 to no applause. They still had the largest following in two months, some 60 people – reporters, photographers, camera crews, a few park rangers. And there were fans along the road beyond the fence on the 12th hole shouting for Woods.
McIlroy overcame three straight bogeys early in his round for an even-par 70. Thomas was going along fine until a pair of double bogeys, one on the seventh hole when his ball never came down from a Monterey Cypress tree. He shot 71.
The start was a good sign for Day, the former No. 1 player in the world, because he has struggled so much since his last win two years ago. His back gives him trouble. Off the course, his mother was battling lung cancer in Australia. And then he finally made a clean break from his longtime coach and lifetime mentor, Collin Swatton.
But he registered three top 10s coming into the PGA Championship, and his confidence is growing.
Ditto for Koepka. He missed the cut at the 3M Open in Minnesota two weeks ago, went home to Florida and during one range session was so frustrated he heaved a few clubs. But a quick video review and some technical work revealed his weight was on the wrong side. He made the adjustment and tied for second last week at a World Golf Championship.
And this is a major. Big Game Brooks is at his best in these.
“He seems to find his comfort zone in these tournaments, in these environments, for whatever reason that is,” McIlroy said. “I think we are all just lucky that he doesn’t find it every other week.”