A day at the beach: Carl Pettersson goes low, big names lurk in PGA Championship
KIAWAH ISLAND — Softened by six inches of rain and left defenseless without her usual stiff Atlantic breezes, a steamy Ocean Course was ripe for the picking by all manner of golfers Thursday morning.
Two Swedes, a former college basketball player, a pajama-pantsed PGA champion and a Dutch ex-ski jumper all found themselves at or near the lead during the first round of the 94th PGA Championship.
A trio of recent major champs — Rory McIlroy, Geoff Ogilvy and Keegan Bradley, the defending PGA champ — also took advantage, and Tiger Woods is in the hunt for his 15th major title with a 3-under 69.
After the Pour by the Shore, it was a day to score by the shore, to the delight of sun-soaked fans.
“I think we’ve seen it about as easy as it can get (in the) morning,” said Carl Pettersson, the hefty Swede who fired a 6-under-par 66 to lead by one over ex-basketball jock Gary Woodland and McIlroy. It was his first round under 70 in 21 PGA Championship rounds.
“It still is a very good and very tough golf course,” said Pettersson, who credited his diet of “10 beers and a tub of ice cream” after winning the RBC Heritage on Hilton Head earlier this year. “But I think we had it under some of the easiest conditions you could probably get.”
Petterson’s countryman, Alex Noren, and Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, were two of the few afternoon players near the lead. Both shot 67 to tie McIlroy and Woodland for second.
In South Carolina’s first major, Palmetto State pros could not take homecourt advantage. Dustin Johnson was the only one of the eight under par, at 1-under 71.
The benign conditions and damp fairways — the colorfully garbed 1991 PGA champ John Daly said he got a few mud balls on the way to his 4-under 68 — created their own sort of pressure for the players to go low while they could.
“It felt like one of those days where everyone’s going to shoot 6, 7, 8-under par,” said Woods, who made six birdies and three bogeys to shoot 69, the third straight major he’s opened with a round in the 60s.
McIlroy, seeking to add to his 2011 U.S. Open title, tied his best PGA Championship round with a 67.
“It was flat calm, and I really thought I had to take advantage of the conditions,” he said. “I’m expecting this to be the best day of the week. I think everyone is.”
The early leaders all have one thing in common — big games suited for what Woods called “a big ballpark.” Woodland banged a 5-iron off the stick on the 229-yard par-3 17th, tapping in for one of his four birdies. He eagled the 593-yard 11th with a driver and a 2-iron.
“I drove the ball the best I’ve driven it all year,” said Woodland, who played hoops at Division II Washburn (Kan.). “When I drive it like that, I’m playing a game that most guys can’t play out here.”
Woods did not cash in as well. Starting on the 10th tee, he hit into two “sandy areas” for bogey on 13, missed the green left for another bogey on 14 and lost his drive right into a water hazard for bogey on No. 4.
But Woods saved his round with a sweet up-and-down on the par-4 9th, nipping a pitch shot over a bunker mound to two feet.
“That was nasty, some nasty stuff right there,” said Woods, who hasn’t won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open. “Open up with a 60 (degree wedge) and put a bit of fuel on it.”
The Ocean Course didn’t give in to everyone. Playing in the afternoon and trying to earn his way on to the Ryder Cup team, Phil Mickelson scrambled his way to a 1-over 73. He hit into beach grass twice on the 7th.
Charley Hoffman made an 8 on the opening hole and shot 81. Joost Luiten, the Dutchman who gave up ski jumping after fracturing his elbow and nose as a child, created a stir by shooting a 31 on the back and getting to minus-8 after 14 holes, threatening the course record of 63 (set by German Alex Cejka in the 1997 World Cup).
But the 26-year-old faded with four straight bogeys to end his round at minus-4, and admitted to some nerves.
“You can’t deny that you get nervous when you start playing so well in a major and take a big lead,” he said.
The nerves, and the conditions, should only get tougher as the PGA — glory’s last shot — moves on.