CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – Jordan Spieth settled in over a delicate bunker shot on the par-4 16th hole Thursday morning in the first round of the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Club, fresh in the knowledge that he’d spent extra time recently refining his sand game.
When he hit the shot heavy and the ball rolled about 18 feet from the hole, Spieth climbed out of the sand and said to himself, “Horrible,” shaking his head.
Three holes later, Spieth was in the middle of the first fairway, watching his long approach shot float right and find the corner of another bunker. “Dang it,” was his admonishment of choice in that moment.
Ultimately, Spieth got around Quail Hollow in decent form, posting a 1-over-par 72 that didn’t sparkle nor did it do any serious damage to his quest to become the youngest player to complete the career Grand Slam.
It was that kind of day at the PGA Championship, a warm, muggy grind around a course that surrendered virtually nothing with its combination of shaggy rough and dangerously quick putting surfaces.
Spieth’s pre-tournament co-star, Rory McIlroy, was motoring along like he typically does here until he bogeyed the par-3 13th hole from the fringe then chopped up the short par-4 14th, making a double bogey on one of the few good birdie opportunities on a layout that seems intended to defend itself against the modern game. McIlroy ultimately posted a 72 that left him five strokes off Thorbjørn Olesen and Kevin Kisner’s shared lead.
Both McIlroy and Spieth are still relevant but if the first round was a hint of things to come in the season’s final major championship, getting to Sunday in contention will feel like road work.
“The greens are as firm as I’ve ever seen, probably any greens at a PGA Championship. That makes things difficult,” McIlroy said.
Criticized previously for their often severe undulations, several greens were softened when the grass was changed last summer. They still have plenty of contour and at the speeds they were rolling Thursday, they turned putting into a game of defense rather than offense.
That wonder of modern technology – SubAir – sucked the summer moisture from the putting surfaces and turned downhill putts into a test of nerves as much as skill.
“Some of these putts that I had for birdie are really one out of five maybe to make. On other greens you are looking at 50 percent. Out here, it’s just the way it is,” Spieth said.
“The pins are on 2½- to 3-degree slopes. When you are pin high, it may look like – the crowd goes oh, but in our minds it’s really essentially a 20-footer with the expectation on the putts. They are difficult to make if you don’t leave it below the hole with not a lot of break.
“I hit some good putts that missed. I burned a lot of edges today. I didn’t make the one out of five. Instead I missed the 10 out of 10 from that kind of range. If I grabbed a couple of those then I would be pleased obviously. Yes, you need to be defensive on these greens. You have to. I was defensive and still had to make 4- to 5-footers for par on a couple them.”
It was bruising.
Phil Mickelson shot 79 – and beat Ernie Els by a stroke. Defending champion Jimmy Walker shot 81. Si Woo Kim, winner of the Players Championship, shot 79, and then withdrew with a shoulder injury. Bubba Watson went for 77. Those are enough to make the point.
Scan the upper portion of the leaderboard and it’s easy to find the bombers who figured to do well at Quail Hollow. Gary Woodland and Brooks Koepka played well. Rickie Fowler, no bomber but a guy who’s won at Quail Hollow, is there. Kevin Kisner plays the place regularly with relatives. Hideki Matsuyama is nearby as are Dustin Johnson and Jason Day.
If the conditions remain similar to Thursday and the predicted thunderstorms don’t arrive Friday afternoon, Quail Hollow could be more difficult. It is, after all, a major championship.
“I’m only five behind … 4 under is the best score out there. It’s a tough golf course. I shoot something in the 60s tomorrow, move right up there. So yeah, I’m in it – yeah,” McIlroy said.
Spieth had a similar feeling.
“If you told me I was going to hit my driver the way that I did today, I would have definitely thought I shot a few under par which was an awesome score,” Spieth said. “I can’t putt any worse than I did today.”