Brooks Koepka said before the start of the 101st PGA Championship that he believes majors are easier to win because perhaps only 35-40 players begin the tournament with a legitimate shot of beating him.
The three-time major champion and world’s third-ranked player backed up that statement with a course-record 7-under-par 63 in Thursday’s first round in Farmingdale, N.Y. Koepka’s bogey-free card on the demanding Black Course at Bethpage State Park included seven birdies — none of which came on the course’s two par-5s.
“That was one of the best rounds I’ve played probably as a professional,” Koepka said. “This golf course is brutal.”
However, he acknowledged that his round could have been even better and that Thursday’s conditions lent themselves to low scoring.
While no one in the morning wave could get within four shots of Koepka’s masterpiece, New Zealand’s Danny Lee used eight birdies to offset a pair of bogeys in posting a 6-under 64 in the afternoon.
The next closest competitor is England’s Tommy Fleetwood, who was one of the first players out Thursday and posted a 3-under 67. Another shot off the pace are Luke List, Chez Reavie, Pat Perez, France’s Mike Lorenzo-Vera and South Korea’s Sung Kang.
A star-studded and deep group of players at 1 under includes world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson and Jordan Spieth, who is attempting to become only the sixth player to complete the career grand slam. Australia’s Jason Day is also at 1 under.
They’ll begin Friday tied for ninth place, but staring a long way up at Koepka with 54 holes to play.
Koepka began his round with a 30-foot birdie putt on No. 10. He would roll in six more birdies to throw down the early gauntlet as he attempts to defend his title and become the first player since World War II to win his first four career majors within a two-year span.
He played Thursday’s opening round with Tiger Woods, who had a far more stressful time around the par-70 track. Woods, seeking his 16th major title, double-bogeyed the opening hole and added another double on No. 17 to go out in 3-over 38.
Woods blistered the opening portion of the front nine with a pair of birdies followed by an eagle on the par-5 fourth hole — his first eagle at a PGA Championship since 2001 — to get under par for the first time. The rally stalled when his par putt on the following hole lipped out, and Woods added more bogeys on Nos. 7 and 8 to fall eight shots back of his playing partner.
The margin grew to nine when Koepka rolled in a lengthy birdie putt on his final hole while Woods made par from just off the back to complete his 2-over 72.
“Just make it,” Koepka told reporters when asked about his thought process on the final putt. “I think that was the only thing that was going through my head.
“I had good reads on it all day. The speed control was very solid. I felt very comfortable with the putter after a couple of changes we made, and very pleased with the way I putted today.
“(The course) definitely tests every part of your game, that’s for sure.”
Woods is playing for the first time since winning the Masters last month, while Koepka is coming off a fourth-place finish at last week’s AT&T Byron Nelson. He has now played 10 consecutive major rounds under par.
The rust showed for Woods, who missed a pair of greens from inside of 100 yards and struggled with the speed of the greens. He’ll need a solid round Friday just to make the cut, as will Rory McIlroy, who also carded a 72 but only after rolling in his first birdie of the day at No. 18.
“It wasn’t as clean as I’d like to have it for sure,” said Woods, who admitted he skipped Wednesday’s practice round because he was “a little bit sick” but felt fine Thursday.
“Didn’t get off to a very good start. It was a good drive and ended up in a bad spot, and I compounded the problem with trying to use the backboard behind the hole there and missing a putt I should have made.
“And then found my way back around. Got it back under par for the day, and let a couple slip away with a couple bad putts and a couple mistakes at the end.”
If Woods can take any positive away from Thursday, it may be the fact that the past four PGA champions were outside the top 10 after the first round. On the flip side, he is chasing a man in Koepka who has posted six consecutive rounds in the 60s at the PGA Championship while shooting a combined 25-under par.
The scary part for the rest of the field is that Woods said that 63 was about the highest Koepka could have shot on Thursday with the way he was playing.
“I didn’t take care of the par-5s, didn’t birdie any of the par-5s,” Koepka said. “That was disappointing because I felt like you know those are holes you should be able to birdie. … And then the second hole today, my 11th hole, I missed about a 5-footer.
“That would have been nice to shoot 60. I guess that would have been pretty good.”
But Koepka also realizes that the number he posted on Thursday already limits the number of players in the field who have a realistic shot of catching him.
“I wouldn’t say there’s very many guys,” Koepka acknowledged. “It tests every asset of your game. You’ve got to drive the ball straight. It’s long, so you’ve got to hit it far and really position yourself with some of these shots in.
“You can’t miss — you can’t take a shot off, and that’s what I love. There’s a fine line between 5, 6 over and a couple under out here. It’s a fun golf course to play, that’s for sure.”
Other notable finishers included Matt Kuchar, Xander Schauffele, England’s Justin Rose and Spain’s Jon Rahm at even par; Bryson DeChambeau and Italy’s Francesco Molinari (2 over); Patrick Reed and Spain’s Sergio Garcia (4 over) and Bubba Watson (6 over).
John Daly, who has been permitted to use a cart during the tournament, carded a 5-over 75. … The Black Course is playing host to the PGA Championship for the first time after serving as the venue for the U.S. Open in 2002 and 2009. It will also be the host site for the 2024 Ryder Cup. … The Championship was moved to May for the first time since 1949 as part of the PGA Tour’s schedule overhaul this season. … The 156-player field includes 20 club professionals, led by Jason Caron and Ryan Vermeer at even-par 70 on Thursday.
–Derek Harper (@DerekAHarper), Field Level Media