We should have known the PGA Championship would start like this
KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — We should have known.
No matter his knee, or his form, or his five MCs in eight starts, or his head-scratching first-hole double-bogey, we should have known that Brooks Koepka would get himself into contention.
“It’s a major. I’m going to show up. I’m ready to play,” he said after an opening three-under 69, good enough for T2. He didn’t say, “Duh.” It was implied, though.
“I felt like I already had confidence,” he added. “So in my mind it’s just a major week. Just show up. That’s all you’ve got to do.”
We should have known.
We should have known that the defending champ Collin Morikawa would come to play. He, too, came in under the radar. But Kiawah is a course for straight-ball hitters, and there aren’t many hitters straighter than Morikawa. He hit 13 of 14 fairways, best in the field, and posted two-under 70, squarely in contention.
“I hope it does stay windy because it really tests your ability to hit quality shots,” Morikawa said. He hits a lot of quality shots.
We should have known, too, that Keegan Bradley — another straight-ball hitter who has been trending upwards — would find his way back onto a PGA Championship leaderboard. We’re a decade removed from Bradley’s major victory in Atlanta. We’re nine years removed from his bronze medal finish at Kiawah’s last PGA. That was two kids and a family ago, but good mojo transcends time. Bradley doesn’t remember every shot, but the good feeling after his third-place finish endures.
“I remember sitting upstairs here. I was finally on the Ryder Cup team,” he said. “I do know that this is a ball-striker’s course and that I’m very comfortable out here.”
We should have known that this was a good week for Viktor Hovland, because every week seems to be. But this week seems extra-good, he said after another 69.
“I can’t remember the last time I felt as good as I did today on the golf course,” he said. “I really felt comfortable off the tee, and I hit a bunch of fairways, and I was able to hit a bunch of greens as well.”
That’s a solid foundation for a solid first round.
We should have known that the day’s straight-ball hitter with the hottest putter would be able to take it semi-deep, and on Thursday Corey Conners was that flusher. Six birdies. Just one bogey. Yowza.
There are a few other things we should have known. We suspected that the PGA of America would move some tees around to keep the players happy, because they always tend to do so. The two hundred yards were lopped off the total to keep the course gettable. We saw 16 eagles. Three hundred eighty-four birdies. Plenty of good.
We thought there might be some high scores, too, and there were: A dozen or so players failed to break 80 and the scoring average was just a shade under 75.
We knew the finishing stretch would be punishing, and was it ever: No. 15 played at the third-toughest hole, No. 16 played as the toughest par-5, No. 17 played as the second-toughest hole and No. 18 was the toughest of them all. If you played the final four holes in one over par you were gaining on the field.
All that is to say there was some logic to the way Day 1 played out at Kiawah. It made sense. But this is golf, and the unpredictability was the entire point. What didn’t we see coming?
Phil Mickelson, for one. A straight-ball hitter he is not. Kiawah seemed like a bad fit. But there was Lefty at two-under 70, right in the mix.
Another surprise: Rory McIlroy, but for a different reason. Recent PGA Tour winner. Returning Kiawah Island champion. Three over par. Justin Thomas tied him. And Dustin Johnson made just one single birdie. But they’re not out of it — not yet.
Daniel Berger likely is out of it at six-over 78, and as a trendy sleeper pick coming off a hot week we didn’t see that coming, either. Nor did we anticipate the unfortunate WD from Sam Burns, who pulled out mid-round with a back injury after last week’s runner-up finish.
Finally, we didn’t see this many low scores coming, either. Thirty players broke par. Another dozen shot 72. If you didn’t finish the day in red numbers, you have ground to make up.
To sum up: We should have seen all of this coming, except the stuff we couldn’t have predicted. Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course was brutally difficult, except where it wasn’t. The best players played the best, except the ones who didn’t. And we’re fairly certain we have no idea what will happen the rest of the week.
Tomorrow, the golf rolls on.