Evan Vucci/The Associated Press
KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C.
The breakthrough moment Thursday wasn’t just the sun shining over Kiawah Island. It was Carl Pettersson breaking 70 for the first time in 21 tries at the PGA Championship to take the lead, Rory McIlroy flashing that boyish smile and bashing tee shots.
And yes, even John Daly showing there might be another cycle left in that up-and-down career.
Pettersson, a winner earlier this year in South Carolina down the coast at Hilton Head, got the best of the weather on a steamy day on the Ocean Course and didn’t waste the opportunity. He made three birdies in four holes, never dropped a shot and wound up with a 6-under 66.
“There really wasn’t much wind on the front nine, so I knew I had to keep going low because I figured the wind would get up,” Pettersson said. “The wind started blowing a little bit on the back nine, and I carried on solid play. So it was a great day for me.”
It was a good day for Tiger Woods, nothing more.
Despite having to get up-and-down for bogey on three holes, he made enough birdie putts for a 69, a reasonable start as he tries to end the longest drought of his career in the majors. This is his 14th major since he won his last one in 2008, and the last one of an otherwise good season.
“Anything in the 60s is going to be a good start in a major championship,” Woods said. “And I’m right there.”
He had plenty of company, some players who had not been heard from in a while, others that were all too familiar.
Gary Woodland, who started the season with a new coach (Butch Harmon) and injured himself working too hard on the changes, is feeling better and hitting it longer than ever. He opened with a 67, as did McIlroy and Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano.
“I drove the ball the best I’ve driven it all year,” Woodland said, one of the most powerful players in the game. “And when I drive it like that, I’m playing a game that most guys can’t play out here.”
Daly made an eagle on the par-5 11th hole and was in the group at 68 that included former U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy and defending PGA champion Keegan Bradley, who had a birdie-eagle start before he settled into his round.
Adam Scott, in his first major since throwing away the British Open with four bogeys on his last four holes, quickly got back into the mix with a 68, one of the better scores from the late starters.
The flags started to ripple in the afternoon, though not enough to make Kiawah as frightening as it can be. With so much rain over the last week, including storms that limited practice time before the championship began, the greens were soft and fairways slow.
Those were the kind of conditions McIlroy had when he shattered the scoring record at the U.S. Open last summer at Congressional. More than soft conditions, though, was that bounce in his step while walking down the fairway after blistering his tee shots. He hit 10 drivers, most of them were he was aiming.
McIlroy was bogey-free, and while he failed to make birdie on a couple of the par 5s, he picked up a shot on the field at the 249-yard 14th hole, which features severe slopes off every corner of the green. Leave it to the 23-year-old from Northern Ireland to hit a towering 3-iron that settled 12 feet from the flag, one of only six birdies on the par 3 in the first round.
McIlroy has been a disappointment in the majors this year – much of his season has gone the wrong direction since he briefly rose to No. 1 in the world after winning the Honda Classic in March – but got a pep talk from putting coach Dave Stockton and has spent more time playing instead of practicing technique.
Perhaps some luck is starting to come his way, too.
Last month at the British Open, he drilled a young kid in the head, and the ball bounced out-of-bounds. On Thursday, he badly pulled his tee shot on the scary par-3 17th. The ball could have gone anywhere except that it hit a woman on the hip and bounced toward the green into a bunker. That led to a simple up-and-down for par, one of the few nervous moments McIlroy had all day.
“It’s becoming a habit hitting people in the majors, so try not to do that again,” McIlroy said.
Sure, he missed some birdie opportunities, though he was more interested in some of the birdies he made and was satisfied with his start.
“It was a fair reflection of how I played,” he said.
There was no doubting that Thursday might have been the best chance to post a score. More storms are in the forecast for later in the week, and just enough wind could make it more difficult to find birdies.
“I’m expecting this to be the best day of the week,” McIlroy said. “I think everyone is. So we know that there’s going to be a bit of wind coming in and maybe a bit of bad weather. It’s just something that you’re going to have to deal with, and I’m just happy that I got off to a great start.”
Equally thrilled was Daly, who showed up 21 years ago as the ninth alternate in the PGA Championship and introduced his “grip-it-and-rip-it” style to win by three shots at Crooked Stick. Daly hasn’t had his full PGA Tour card in more than six years, though he is starting to show some form. He tied for fifth last week in the Reno-Tahoe Open, his highest finish on the PGA Tour since 2005.
“To just free wheel it is the only way I can get my confidence back instead of worrying about bad breaks and worrying about this and worrying about what somebody else is doing,” Daly said. “I only need to worry about what I’m doing and go out and attack and play golf and enjoy it.”
There was plenty to like in the opening round. Stifling heat, sure, but this is the South in August. Sweat was pouring off the faces of players as early as 8 a.m. Splendid views of the Atlantic over the dunes made it tolerable, as did the number of birdies available.
Three of the last four major champions used belly putters, and Pettersson kept that topic alive with a long putter that he anchors to the chest. He has been using a broom putter since he was a sophomore in college, and he is opposed to the idea of banning any putter that anchors to the body.
If it were that easy, he reasons, everyone would be using them. That’s not to say he wouldn’t adapt if the putters were ever banned, a possibility as early as 2016.
“Well, I’d have to,” said Pettersson, a Swede who moved to North Carolina as a teenager and became an American citizen last year. “I’ve got a high school diploma. What else am I going to do?”
Chuck Burton/The Associated Press