CHARLOTTE, N.C. – While it’s true that Thorbjorn Olesen and Kevin Kisner are the first-round leaders at the PGA Championship, most people are looking past the Dane and the American toward one of the players one shot back.
U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka posted a 3-under 68 on Thursday at Quail Hollow Club, one behind Olesen and Kisner, who each shot 4-under 67 (scores: http://bit.ly/2upkvKk). Koepka made birdies on three of his final five holes for his 68, and Olesen and Kisner each made six birdies in their 67s. And each of the leaders had a dramatic birdie putt on the 18th hole.
PGA Tour rookie Grayson Murray, playing in his first PGA Championship, joined Koepka at 3 under along with Gary Woodland, Chris Stroud and D.A. Points. Seven players are tied at 2-under 69, including Rickie Fowler.
Koepka would appear to be the prototypical player for this PGA Championship at brutal Quail Hollow, which can play as long as 7,600 yards. He is one of the PGA Tour’s longest players off the tee, ranking sixth at 309.2 yards, which gives him a marked advantage. “This golf course, it's a bomber's paradise, I think,” he said.
Be that as it may, it’s still putting that wins these championships, and players in the field at Quail Hollow are muttering to themselves, trying to decipher breaks and speed on the Champion ultradwarf Bermudagrass greens.
In fact, Koepka started his day by missing a 4-footer on the par-5 10th. “That was kind of my day, it kind of felt like,” he said. “Wasn't exactly comfortable on the greens. I don't know what that was.
“I think it had a lot to do with the speed of the greens, how fast they were. With some of the pin locations, these greens are the fastest greens I've ever played. And the thing is, they are only going to get faster and firmer.”
Kisner might be the most underrated player on the PGA Tour with two victories, one of which was earlier this year at the Dean and DeLuca Invitational at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas.
“There are five holes out here that I have to birdie in order to compete, and I birdied them all, said the 33-year-old Kisner, who comes from Aiken, S.C. “The par 5s and the short par 4s, where I can get my wedge game going from 10-12 feet, is where I score. Otherwise, I’m playing for pars.”
Olesen, a 27-year-old from Denmark, plays most of his golf on the European Tour and has four wins on that circuit. Whether leading a major championship is out of his comfort zone is yet to be determined. But he looked like one of the few players in the field comfortable on the greens.
At the 480-yard 18th, Olesen hit a 7-iron into the green and holed a 28-footer to take the early lead that held up until Kisner matched it late in the day.
“In the practice round on Tuesday, I was going into [the 18th] with a 3-iron. So it changes a lot, that hole. I played this tournament [annual Wells Fargo Championship], I think, two or three years ago, and I remember I hit it a lot shorter than this.
“It's tough, 16, 17, 18. You have to hit some quality shots, and three pars there is a very good score.”
Koepka, who won the U.S. Open at Erin Hills in June, is using his major-championship experience to find his own comfort in this final major of the season.
“I think people get quite frustrated sometimes in majors,” Koepka said. “I've seen it a lot. You've just got to stay really patient and realize sometimes bogey is not a bad score out here. It's quite difficult, and you've just got to realize that, you know, you're in the first round of a four-round event. So one hole isn't going to kill you.
“But in majors… all I can say is I try not to make a double bogey. That's kind of my goal in a major; if I can keep doing that. I don't know when – the last time did I in a major. I'm sure it's happened. But I feel like, you know, it takes one hole to recover from a bogey, and it takes two to come back from a double.”
Murray, 23, from nearby Raleigh, N.C., earned a berth in the PGA due to his first Tour victory, at the recent Barbasol Championship, played opposite the British Open.
“People ask me, Was it a relief or excitement?” Murray said. “And it was excitement. I knew I had a few more tournaments to secure my card. Getting that first win was huge, confidence-wise. I can't say how hard it is to win out here. I can't stress it. What these guys do, what Jason Day or Rory [McIlroy] or Jordan [Spieth] or Hideki [Matsuyama], people take that for granted. It's unbelievable. Hopefully I can be in that category in the next year or two and be in their shoes.”
Spieth, who would achieve the career Grand Slam with a victory this week, started his quest inauspiciously with a 1-over 72.
Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf