Rickie Fowler shot a 5-under par 65 on Thursday to hold a two-shot lead after the morning wave of the first round of the PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis.
Fowler played in the hottest group of the early starters, with England’s Ian Poulter part of a group of players at 3-under and Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama another shot back as the threesome combined to go 10-under.
Defending champion Justin Thomas got off to a strong start on the back nine with birdies on three of his first six holes to take an early lead. However, Thomas bogeyed two of his final six holes, including his last, to fall back to 1-under.
Fowler began his round on the back nine and opened with four consecutive pars before rolling in the first of six birdies on the par-4 14th hole. He gave the shot back at No. 16, but immediately birdied the 17th and made his turn in 1-under 34.
Fowler started his charge with a birdie on No. 1, got to 3-under with another on the par-3 third hole and then birdied Nos. 7 and 8.
“You do have to take advantage when you get a Thursday morning tee time,” he said after the round, just as the afternoon wave was teeing off. “Get out and set a mark if you can.”
Fowler said he expected players to mount a charge during the afternoon wave, but conceded that posting low scores late in the day during the first two rounds would likely be difficult due to the amount of traffic on the greens.
“Everyone gets a morning and an afternoon time, so I’m definitely happy about the start,” Fowler said. “Felt like I kept it very stress-free. Hit a lot of fairways, hit a lot of greens, and just played within myself. Didn’t try to do anything special or get anything extra out there today.”
It was a much different story for two of the game’s biggest names. Starting on the back nine, Tiger Woods bogeyed his first hole, doubled his second and dropped to 3-over with a bogey on No. 16 before going 3-under over his final 10 holes to get back to even par. He is currently tied with a host of players that includes Rory McIlroy,
“You know, just grind my away around this place and stay patient as possible,” Woods told TNT. “Got off to a terrible start and just tried to hang in there and just kind of eat away at it.
“If I didn’t get off to such a bad start, I played well enough to put myself under par. There are not a lot of guys that are going to run away with this thing today. If you can make a few birdies here and there, you’re doing well.”
The ride was even wilder for Phil Mickelson, who also began on the back nine. He made his turn in 2-over 37, and was at 5-over following a double on No. 3 and a bogey on No. 4. He closed with a pair of birdies over his final four holes to card a 3-over 73, where he is tied with the likes of fellow major champions Henrik Stenson and Danny Willett.
Fowler, who turns 30 later this year, is still chasing his elusive first major title. He entered the week ranked ninth in the world, but seventh in the United States Ryder Cup team points race. The top eight after the PGA Championship earning automatic spots on the team that will travel to France next month, so there is a lot riding on his performance this week.
“I’m definitely happy with the start, and we’ll see if we can keep that rolling, because I know the last few events we haven’t exactly put together four consecutive rounds like we need to and want to,” said Fowler, who tied for 28th at The Open Championship and then 17th at last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. “This is a different week.”
—Field Level Media