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Ocean Course goes easy on PGA Championship field

Corey Conners in 1st round of 2021 PGA Championship
Corey Conners shoots 5-under 67 on Thursday to establish the 1st-round lead at the 103rd PGA Championship at Kiawah Island's Ocean Course.

Corey Conners of Canada shoots 5-under 67 as 30 players break par on a relatively benign day at Kiawah Island’s brutish track

The “War by the Shore” resumed Thursday at Kiawah Island, but this was a mere skirmish compared with the 1991 Ryder Cup showdown between Europe and the U.S. at the South Carolina coastal resort.

On the difficulty scale, the 2021 PGA Championship’s opening round ranked somewhere between the “Romp by the Swamp” and the “Swoon in the Dunes.”

This week, it’s every man for himself battling against the evil entity known as the Ocean Course. The pre-tournament fears that this course might prove to be too long and too tough didn’t pan out. Oh, it was plenty long and plenty tough Thursday – this is a major championship, after all – but it wasn’t unfair, out of line or over the top, any of which would’ve been the preference of the Pete Dye, the late, great, notorious designer of the Ocean Course.

“This is the most difficult course I’ve played on [the PGA] Tour,” said 2020 U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau, who overcame four straight bogeys to shoot even-par 72.

That comment might have made Dye crack a small smile, but of course he would’ve wanted more. A few tears, maybe.

Canadian Corey Conners was the story of the day. Conners broke from the pack to take the first-round lead with a stellar 5-under 67. Four other players were three strokes back at 69: Americans Brooks Koepka, Keegan Bradley and Aaron Wise and Norway’s Viktor Hovland. (For scores, click here.)

Only one player did better than 3 under par, so Dye’s fortress withstood the world’s finest players.

The scores were as modest as the breezes, which gusted at times but were slightly less than normal, considering that normal where the Atlantic Ocean is just a tee shot away typically means flags flapping frantically.

Conners was the outlier who made this game look easy. He is 29 and played college golf at Kent State, where he majored in actuarial mathematics. Maybe that kind of academic background is why he seems so calm and unexcitable.

“I was fortunate to have a good day,” said Conners, whose lone victory on the PGA Tour came at the 2019 Valero Texas Open. “I made it as least stressful as possible on myself. I’d say it’s impossible to be stress-free around this course. It’s very challenging. I am really pleased with my score.”

He is known for being one of the best iron players, a genre that fared well in the opening round. How easy did he make it look? At 18, he busted a drive down the fairway, then hit a smooth, slow-swinging hybrid just past the pin. It was a cautious but easy par on a strong hole where a Buy-A-Par Stand would’ve done bustling business.

Dustin Johnson, the No. 1 player in the world, certainly would have been a customer. At the 18th, he made a double bogey, his second of the round, and struggled to a 4-over 76.

Some other early casualties, relatively speaking, included Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas.

McIlroy won the 2012 PGA Championship at the Ocean Course by a record eight strokes. Thursday, he began his round by blocking a tee shot into a marsh en route to a bogey. He bogeyed three of the four par-5 holes and shot 75.

Thomas, a former PGA champ himself, went bogey-double bogey at the last two holes and shot 75.

Cameron Champ, a big hitter seen as possibly being a fit for the king-sized Ocean Course, brought it home in 10-over 82. Champ had three 6s and an 8 on his card. That might be good in draw poker, or not, but it’s definitely not good in golf.

It’s been nine years since the PGA Championship last visited Kiawah Island, so for many players in the field, this was a new experience.

“The wind just kicked my butt,” DeChambeau said. “It takes a lot out of you. It’s windy, you’re over a 4-footer and you think it’s going to break. When the wind stops, it’s not going to break. It’s a really difficult thing you’ve got to control.

“It's diabolical. You've got to be on point every single hole.”

Diabolical? Wait until the wind actually gets up, if it does. That will be diabolical. But, point taken. Memo to self: Move the Ocean Course up the list of golf’s most challenging major-championship setups.

There were plenty of heroic and not-so-heroic shots. Patrick Cantlay holed out from the fairway for eagle at the par-5 second hole, and Will Zalatoris did likewise at the par-4 sixth. Cameron Smith, the young Australian with the mullet who refuses to stay off leaderboards, watched his iron shot at the par-3 fifth land on the green, run out 30 feet or so and kiss the flagstick … and clang off.

Koepka began his round with one of the not-so-heroic shots. His opening drive at the 10th hole, his first, found a waste area right of the fairway. His next shot caromed off the hillside immediately in front of him, the hillside that he was intending to hit his ball over. That led to a shocking double bogey, which made his 69 a little more impressive.

“It wasn’t the ideal start,” Koepka said with chagrin. “The first rule is, if you’re in trouble, get the hell out. You can’t do that stuff if you want to win. I don’t know if that decision I made on the 10th was a lack of not playing or what. It was just stupid. I was able to recover.”

Six birdies allowed Koepka to rally and, even though his surgically repaired knee is not 100 percent, resemble the feared opponent who racked up four major championship titles in 2017-2019 and didn’t take prisoners. The fact that Koepka already has latched onto the first page of the leaderboard might not be a great sign for the pursuers. The pre-injury Koepka was known for getting the lead and keeping it.

“I love it when it’s difficult,” Koepka said. “I think that’s why I do so well in the majors. I know I can grind it out. You’ve got to understand sometimes that par is a good score.”

Another noteworthy event was long-lost Rickie Fowler re-emerging with a 1-under 71. Fowler, one of the game’s most popular players and certainly one with the most TV commercial endorsements, has struggled with his game over the last two years. Fowler needed a special exemption just to get into this PGA Championship. He, too, looked a little like his old self in this first round.

“I’m starting to feel pretty darn good,” Fowler said. “I put in a lot of time the last few months working on my swing. Now it’s just, Go play golf. Unfortunately, the putter has gone pretty cold, if not the coldest it’s ever been for me. That’s a club I’ve been able to rely on from junior golf on up.”

Defending champion Collin Morikawa used a hot putter to post a 70, a good start despite a bogey finish. He was paired with the big-hitting DeChambeau. “I outdrove him on 9 today and I made bogey,” Morikawa said jokingly. “So maybe I should dial it back.”

Hovland’s fine play was not a surprise. Hovland, only 23, already has won twice on the PGA Tour, and he’s been playing well this year. Plus, after he left Oklahoma State after two years of college golf and a U.S. Amateur title, he made his home in Stillwater and now considers himself a veteran wind player. “I live in Oklahoma,” said Hovland, who always appears to be smiling about something, “and it blows like this every single day.”

Hovland has seen windier days. The Ocean Course has, too. Thirty players finished under par. So far, this PGA Championship looks like a fair fight. But if the winds strengthen, be prepared. This “War by this Shore” will have only begun.

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