Tiger Woods struggles as Brooks Koepka coasts clear in US PGA
Tiger Woods cut a frustrated figure as the magic of the Masters eluded him on day one of the 101st US PGA Championship.
Woods was playing for the first time since winning that remarkable 15th major title at Augusta, but he struggled on the infamous Bethpage Black course on Long Island and ended with a two-over-par round of 72.
Woods’ woes were a far cry from playing partner Brooks Koepka, the defending champion, who stormed to a course-record seven-under 63 — one off the all-time major record set by Branden Grace in the Open at Royal Birkdale in 2017 — to set a searing pace.
Later in the day, New Zealander Danny Lee fired a round of 64 in breezier conditions to close in on Koepka, who has won three of his last seven majors and beat Woods to the PGA title last year before finishing second to the former world No.1 at Augusta last month.
But while Koepka coasted, Woods experienced a roller-coaster of a round including two double bogeys and an eagle, not helped by a misfiring putter.
“It wasn’t as clean as I’d like to have it, for sure,” said Woods, who won the US Open at Bethpage in 2002.
“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.”
His round began in ignominious fashion with a double bogey following short-game issues after starting at the 10th.
The 43-year-old steadied the ship and picked up a birdie on the 15th, his sixth, before another double bogey via the sand on the 17th took him to the turn in three-over 38.
A brace of birdies starting the back nine and then an eagle three at the signature par-five fourth to get to one under gave the impression Woods had finally shaken off the rust after only playing nine holes in practice this week. “I got a little bit sick, so I decided to stay home,” he said.
But the world No. 6, who still has to manage his back after spinal fusion surgery in April 2017, dropped a shot at the fifth and two more at the seventh and eighth, his 16th and 17th, throwing his head back in annoyance as another makeable putt stayed out.
“I felt like it’s not that hard to make bogeys out here, but it’s hard to make birdies,” added Woods.
‘Focus on me’
The powerful Koepka, however, was on cruise control, continuing where he left off on Long Island after winning the US Open at Shinnecock Hills 60 miles to the east last June.
Armed with a potent putter, he picked up three birdies on his front nine and four more coming home for a bogey-free, fuss-free round.
The 29-year-old Koepka, who also shot a 63 on his way to the PGA title in St. Louis last August, is able to marry brute force with a deft touch and a single-minded demeanour on the course — the perfect antidote for the clamor that surrounds Woods.
“You know, it was great that Tiger won Augusta, but I mean, we’re at a new week now,” Koepka told a news conference after his round. “I’ve just got to go out there and focus on me.
“You know what you’re going to get when you play with him. I mean, obviously everybody in New York is going to be cheering for him, and it’s going to be loud, especially if he makes a putt. You’ve just got to keep battling and find a way to get through it.”
Get through it he did, and then some.
“That was one of the best rounds I’ve played probably as a professional. This golf course is brutal,” he added.
Of other marquee names, world No.1 Dustin Johnson, Grand Slam-chasing Jordan Spieth and veteran Phil Mickelson ended one under, while Rory McIlroy, seeking a fifth major and first since 2014, finished two over.
“Anything under par on this course is great,” said Spieth, who needs the US PGA to become only the sixth player to complete the set of all four majors.
“What Brooks and Danny did is out of this world. They must have hit a lot of fairways.”
Behind the top two, England’s Tommy Fleetwood led the way, carding a three-under 67 to keep tabs on Koepka, just as he did to finish second behind the American at Shinnecock last year.