PGA Championship 2018: Bellerive looks to be a career-changer, plus nine Round 1 takeaways
ST. LOUIS — On a muggy, thick day in the midwest (aren’t they all, though?), Gary Woodland took the first-round lead at the 2018 PGA Championship by one stroke over Rickie Fowler.
Woodland fired a stunning 6-under 64 in the slightly tougher afternoon wave that included a bogey at the first hole but a 30 on the back nine. Fowler (65) trails him by a stroke, and Brandon Stone and Zach Johnson (66) sit just behind him. Following that group of four is a set of 27 players at 2 under or 3 under. Those are the ones I want to discuss.
Among those within three or four of the lead are Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm, Justin Rose and Thomas Pieters — all at 67 — along with Webb Simpson, Francesco Molinari, Joaquin Niemann, Hideki Matsuyama and Marc Leishman at 68.
What I find fascinating about this group when you attach it to the top four on the board is that the entire top 31 on the board — everyone at or within four of the lead — has just eight total majors (and Zach Johnson has two of them!).
When we talk about loaded leaderboards, often we talk about heavyweight major champs — the Jordan Spieths, Rory McIlroys and Phil Mickelsons of the world. It seems like this tournament, though, has a chance to be a career-changer for somebody with no major wins (Woodland, Fowler or Matsuyama) or even somebody who has just one (Rose, Day and Dustin Johnson). Going from the one major club to the two major club is a huge deal — especially since there are currently just 82 folks who have won two or more … in the history of golf.
Who knows, maybe somebody like McIlroy (70) or Spieth (71) comes from deep to capture the tournament like Thomas did last year, but for now, it seems as if somebody without a long major championship resume is probably going to win the golf tournament. That’s awesome in a way that only golf can be, and as a result, we kind of get the best of both worlds here — a really great board but also the opportunity for a life-changing win come Sunday.
1. Sustainability of scores: Not all low scores are created equal so let’s take a look at the top three. I get nervous when guys are posting scores by putting out of their minds. If I’m looking purely at what is more sustainable over the course of an event, I think Fowler is in the perfect spot.
- Woodland (7.4 strokes gained): 17th tee to green | 1st putting
- Fowler (6.4 strokes gained): 1st tee to green | 71st putting
- Stone (5.4 strokes gained): 24th tee to green | 5th putting
- Z. Johnson (5.4 strokes gained): 34th tee to green | 3rd putting
2. Course is kind of tough: Bellerive is playing tougher than I initially thought it would. The scoring average on Thursday was about a stroke and a half over par, but I fully expected a modest PGA Tour event to break out at this final major of 2018. Instead, guys went to war for something under par.
“You’ve got to drive it on the fairway,” said McIlroy after shooting 70. “Even when you do, with how soft the greens are and they’re up on these little ledges … you have to be so accurate with your irons.”
“It is playing fairly long and you kind of have to pick and choose which holes you kind of maybe play aggressive on, hit driver, take on some of the corners or bunkers and where you lay back,” said Fowler after his 65. “You start driving it in the rough and missing greens, start scrambling, I feel like that’s where kind of the bogeys come.”
3. How close should you be? I love going back and looking at how many years in a row a given event has produced a winner from inside the top 10 or top 15 after the first round. In other words, how important is is to shoot a great score in Round 1 at an event? You don’t have to go back many PGAs to realize that the recent answer here is “not very.” Justin Thomas won last year’s tournament after being six back and outside the top 40 after 18 holes. It feels like everyone is still in it.
4. Rory McIlroy’s woes: As always, everything is on a curve for a four-time major winner. Shooting a 70 on Thursday was hardly an abomination, but I think we all expected more from McIlroy. I followed him for much of the morning, and his swing just doesn’t look as taut as it has in the past. Even still, he’s putting himself in position to score a little bit and not taking advantage. He missed putts of 7 feet, 9 feet, 10 feet and 14 feet on Thursday and summed up his day nicely afterwards.
Reporter: What was your best shot of the day?
McIlroy: “My shot of the day? I don’t think I had one. I don’t know. They were all okay.”
5. Wait, who is Brandon Stone? The South African has had an interesting summer. He hadn’t places in the top 20 anywhere in the world since the Dunhill Links Championship in 2017 before going out and winning a loaded Scottish Open the week before the Open Championship. He followed that with a T61 at The Open that included a surrender cobra for the ages before shooting a 4-under 66 on Thursday with five birdies and just one bogey. Does he have staying power? I don’t know about that, but I do know winning the Scottish Open — with a 60 (!) in the final round, no less — is a big deal.
6. A Tiger circle: The atmosphere on a Thursday morning was pretty stimulating for the Tiger-McIlroy-Thomas group. Tiger talked openly after the round about how he feels everything has come full circle.
“I told the story the other night at the Champions Dinner when I played with Jack [Nicklaus] at Valhalla, 18 years ago, that was his last PGA. He was telling me the story that he played with Gene Sarazen in his last PGA. It’s interesting what this game of golf can do, how we can basically last for so many different generations.
“The reason why I was telling the story is because J.T. invited me to speak on behalf of himself and PGA of America a little bit, and J.T. was 7 years old when we were at Valhalla,. He was in the clubhouse when I made that putt on 18. So kind of trying to tie in Gene Sarazen, Jack, and little J.T. there, and now he’s PGA champion for the last year, 17 years later. So it’s pretty neat.”
7. Shot of the day: This was honestly my favorite shot of the entire day. I cannot stop watching it.
8. Day lurks: Of the guys at 3 under, I think Day is the most dangerous. He only made one bogey on Thursday, and when he starts grooving like he is right now, it can sometimes be like trying to tackle a runaway freight train. Also, these stats would have been nice a few days ago when I was trying to make my picks!
9. If I had to re-pick: I’d go with Day or Fowler. Day feels like the right choice here, but Fowler has to win one of these at some point, right?! My confidence level in him is not super high consider how he ping-ponged around the Bridgestone leaderboard last weekend, but when he’s on, he’s on. We’ll see if it holds.