ST. LOUIS – Kansas-bred Gary Woodland felt right at home in enemy territory and delivered his best performance in a major Thursday at the PGA Championship.
Woodland used his power to birdie the two par 5s on the soft turf of Bellerive, and he relied on a new grip and new confidence in his putter for everything else on his way to a 6-under 64 for a one-shot lead over Rickie Fowler in the opening round of the year’s final major.
Woodland recognized close to 100 friends and family among thousands in a gallery that withstood the sweltering weather, and his only fault was trying too hard. He made a careless bogey on the opening hole, had to make a 15-foot par putt at No. 5. And then he settled down and was on his way.
“This week is as close to home as I’ve been,” Woodland said. “I snuck over here about a month ago and played the golf course. Really enjoyed the layout. The turf is very familiar to me. It’s so hot here during the summer, so the greens are soft and slow. You can be more aggressive, which suits my game.”
Fowler played in the morning, when the greens were slightly smoother, and made five birdies over his last 11 holes for a 65. It was an important start for Fowler, who turns 30 this year and already is regarded as among the best without a major. The closest he has come to such a trophy is celebrating those won by his friends.
“It’s not something I necessarily worry about,” Fowler said. “Keep putting ourselves in position, get in contention … we have had plenty of runner-ups. Jack (Nicklaus) had a lot of runner-ups. We’ll just keep beating down that door.”
Bellerive allowed for low scoring, provided the ball stayed in the short grass. Woodland had an 18-foot birdie attempt on the 18th hole that would have tied the PGA Championship record, and it stopped just short. It was one of the few he missed.
Two-time major champion Zach Johnson and Brandon Stone of South Africa were at 66.
Dustin Johnson reached 5 under until a few wild drives on the back nine cost him. The world’s No. 1 player had to settle for a 67, along with Jason Day, Justin Rose and eight other players.
It was more of a struggle for Tiger Woods, drenched in so much sweat that he changed shirts after 12 shots – that was only two holes and a tee shot. He had to make an 8-foot putt to escape with bogey on No. 10, and then dumped a wedge into the water for double bogey on No. 11. Woods was 3 over through seven holes, and then clawed his way back to even par for a 70.
“A lot of things could happen. Not a lot them were positive,” Woods said. “But I hung in there and turned it around.”
Defending champion Justin Thomas let a good start slip away. He didn’t make a putt outside of a few feet over the last 12 holes and shot 69. Jordan Spieth, in his second crack at the career Grand Slam, opened with a double bogey and finished two bad swings off the tee that sent him to a 71.
The secret was simple: Avoid the rough.
Woodland, who played college basketball for one year at Washburn as a freshman before switching to golf at Kansas, is among the most powerful, athletic figures in golf. He had 145 yards to the front on No. 5 and couldn’t get it to the green.
“Pretty nasty,” he said.
That’s how it was for Woods at the start, when his opening tee shot found the rough and he could only pitch it back to the fairway with a creek at bottom of the hill. That’s why Fowler thrived. He missed only three fairways and putted for birdie on all but two holes.
Fowler’s biggest change was the wardrobe, switching to a yellow shirt for Thursday in memory of Jarrod Lyle, the Australian golfer who died Wednesday. On the course, he looked like he was ready to give this major business – he had his third runner-up finish in a major at the Masters this year – another try.
For Woodland, success in the big events has been hard to find. He still hasn’t registered a top 10, and he hasn’t contended in any tournament since winning the Phoenix Open more than six months ago.
The frustration was in the short game, and Woodland finally had enough at the British Open. He sought out putting specialist Phil Kenyon, who worked with him at Carnoustie, and a little more at Akron, trying not to overload Woodland with too much information.
Then, he switched to an oversized putting grip on Tuesday, and it all came together.
His longest putt was from 45 feet down the hill at No. 11, followed by a 25-footer on the next hole. He finished off his round with a 20-foot birdie putt on the par-3 16th, and then a pitch-and-run to tap-in range after reaching the front of the green in two on the 591-yard 17th.
“It’s nice just to see the results,” Woodland said. “You work so hard and you want to see results to back up the work that you’ve done and today was just a step in the right direction.”
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