Every day of a major championship is enthralling for different reasons. Round 1 always offers hope. With 156 golfers walking onto a golf course for the first time in competition, anything can happen. Twelve hours later, hope is dashed for most of them, but that reality constitutes a buzz that’s unique to the first 18 holes of major championships.
For some, like Corey Conners (67), who leads after Round 1 at the 2021 PGA Championship, hope has only increased. For others — Rory McIlroy (75), Justin Thomas (75), Dustin Johnson (76) and Daniel Berger (78), among others — there’s only a sliver left as it relates to winning the golf tournament.
Now there’s some depth to a tournament that was nothing but a blank canvas when the morning started.
Conners shot the round of the day by a healthy margin,and provided order to the chaos of the first 18 holes. That means a more linear next three days, which is fun for different reasons, but it also means an “anything can happen” Day 1 at the PGA Championship is officially extinguished until Day 1 of the U.S. Open in June.
Let’s take a look at Conners’ wonderful first round and other thoughts after the first 18 holes at Kiawah.
1. Corey Conners, flusher: If you’re unfamiliar, get familiar. Conners is one of the elite ball-strikers in the game, and it showed on Thursday as he shot a ridiculous 33 on the back nine of the course (with ease!) on a day when the average on that nine rose to nearly 38 and his afternoon wave averaged nearly a shot worse than those in the morning wave.
He makes it look easier than even most of his fellow ball-striking kings, and at majors when everything seems to run 2X speed, his flow looks even more languid. Not all first-round leaders are created equal, of course, but Conners has staying power at the top, though going wire-to-wire is as difficult here as it is at any tournament in the world (only Tiger Woods in 2000 and Brooks Koepka in 2019 have done it in the last 35 years).
Conners putted out of his mind on Thursday, gaining over 3 strokes on the field. That’s, uh, not exactly his forte so that should wane over the next three days, but his ball-striking is historically good enough to fill in those gaps. I would be more surprised if he completely disappeared than if he went on to win.
2. Phil? Mickelson? Phil Mickelson? After firing off a tweet about cryptocurrency to me before his round started, Mickelson went out and made bogey at four of his first six holes. It was an inauspicious but unsurprising start for somebody who does not have a top-10 finish at a major since the 2016 Open Championship. And then, he somehow played the next 12 holes in 5-under to shoot a nasty 2-under 70 in Round 1.
Mickelson was just outside the top 10 in strokes gained tee to green, which is not a sentence I imagined typing on a course where driver placement is key and big trouble is exacerbated by the conditions and landscape. It was a complete vintage performance from Lefty, which is always fun but even more so as he plays his last major before turning 51 and you remember how few of these opportunities remain. Continued contention from him would be extremely popular over the next three days on the island.
3. Viktor Hovland, new crowd favorite: One of the early contenders is also becoming a fan favorite for myriad reasons. As good as Hovland is from tee to green (he was unreal on Thursday in Round 1), his hilarious innocence might be even more endearing. Here are two examples. First, on the par-4 4th hole, Hovland was up against the edge of a waste area and asked his caddie how much he had to “cover the crap.” He then proceeded to rake the sand himself and get up and down for par. The entire sequence was very relatable.
Then he delivered this incredible exchange in his post-round press conference.
Just curious, Viktor, have you ever been on the front page of Oslo’s biggest newspaper?
Hovland: “I have no idea. You all would have to do some research on that.”
I don’t speak Norwegian.
Hovland: “You just have to look at the front page, I would assume.”
I was just curious, you talk about television, I didn’t know if any newspapers from home when you’ve been here, has anyone told you?
Hovland: “Could not tell you.”
Do you read the newspaper?
Hovland: “I don’t. I really don’t.”
You and me both.
Hovland: “Typical millennial.”
Hovland was a popular pick this week at Kiawah for obvious reasons, but he would also be an incredibly popular winner if he’s able to string together three more days like Thursday.
4. Iron play > driving: As is normally the case, elite iron play trumps elite driving. Of the top 20 players in strokes gained on approach shots, 13 are under par. Of the top 20 players in strokes gained off the tee, that number drops to 5. This is not all that unusual for the first round of a major, I would imagine — it’s always about hitting it close to the pin — but it’s nice to see this not just be a place where the five longest guys have a chance to win.
5. Last four holes: The closing kick at Kiawah Island is an absolute war. The last five holes played nearly 2 strokes over par, which means if you played them even-par then you were gaining 2 strokes on the field. The last two, in particular, will be fascinating come the weekend depending on how they’re set up. They were the hardest two holes on the course, and the tees were not even tipped out. Hopefully, we don’t get another “Rory by 8” situation on Sunday because there is going to be some angst late in this tournament.
6. How far back is too far back? It’s a fun little game to play after Round 1 at the major championships. The PGA is different than the Masters where the eventual winner is consistently inside the top 10. In the last 20 PGAs, six golfers were five or more strokes off the lead going into Round 2, including Keegan Bradley in 2011 when he was eight back. Even last year, Morikawa trailed by four and was well outside the top 10 going into the second round at TPC Harding Park before going on to win.
7. The grandstand on No. 18: There were a lot of golfers on Thursday who hit drives into the grandstand up to the left side on No. 18. While normally this would be less of a tournament integrity issue and more of a player skill issue, that might not be the case this week.
In fact, Keegan Bradley more or less said players were trying to miss over on that side to get a nice little drop and a good angle into the incredibly difficult 18th green. “It’s definitely comforting that it’s there,” Bradley said. “It’s the [correct] side of the hole; the bunkers are so dead over there. I wasn’t trying to hit it in there by any means, but definitely from that up tee, it’s in play. I feel bad for all those people up there. They’d better have their hard hats on today. They’re going to be firing them in there all day.”
8. Bryson, lurking? After a bumpy first round that included one run of four straight bogeys, Bryson DeChambeau has the most favorable statistical profile of any of the big stars looking to make a move on Friday. He hit it quite well and made nothing. He knew it, too, but he also knows that things can change in a hurry at the Ocean Course.
“I think 3-under is leading right now,” said DeChambeau. “That’s really nothing out here. Getting to 4-over is really nothing out here either. It’s diabolical. You’ve got to be on point every single hole. Again, like I said, it’s about mental fortitude and making sure you’re missing it in the right places, if you can.”
“This is the most difficult golf course that I’ve played on tour, he added later on.
9. Morikawa’s back-to-back bid: It flew a bit under the radar on Thursday because he played early on, but Collin Morikawa was brilliant for most of Round 1 and shot a terrific 2-under 70 to get his name on the board. His iron play remains an absolute joke, and when the putter is on like it was on Thursday, he’s a lot to deal with. He’s trying to join Brooks Koepka (2018-19) and Woods (2006-07 and 1999-2000) as the only golfers since World War II to win consecutive PGA Championships. And as impressive as his win at TPC Harding Park was last August, winning Kiawah to back it up would be even more so.