LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — About the last person anyone expected to see atop the leaderboard at the Senior PGA Championship was Japan’s Kiyoshi Murota.
And that includes Murota.
The 55-year-old golf teacher and touring pro surprised even himself by shooting a 6-under 66 on Thursday to overshadow stars such as Mark O’Meara and Tom Watson and grab the first-round lead in the weather-plagued senior major.
Asked if he thought he came to the tournament thinking he might win it, Murota laughed and said through an interpreter, “Nothing. No chance.”
So, think you can shoot another 66?
“No. No more,” he said to laughter.
Murota had a one-shot lead over alternate Trevor Dodds, with former Masters and British Open winner O’Meara another stroke back after a 68. Watson, an eight-time major champion, shot a 70. Half the field was still on the course when darkness ended the first round. Most played fewer than nine holes.
Murota was the unlikeliest of leaders. He has six Japan Tour victories and five more on that country’s version of the senior circuit. But he has not won on the international stage or on American soil.
In his four previous appearances in the Senior PGA Championship, his worst finish was a tie for 33rd in 2007 and his best a tie for 14th in 2006.
He was 1 under through eight holes before birdieing the next four. Even though he had eight one-putt greens in a span of nine holes, he said after the round that he is typically an average putter.
“I’m usually so-so,” he said. “Only today good.”
Accuracy was his greatest ally. He hit 10 fairways on a day when some of the game’s top names found big problems when they strayed into the thick rough. Four times he hit into bunkers and he saved par each time.
When asked if he was surprised he was on top the leaderboard, he smiled and said, “Somebody has to be leading.”
Dodds was fortunate to even get in the field. He was on the outside looking in until Tuesday when Joey Sindelar withdrew with a bad back.
The St. Louis resident, originally from Namibia, needed just 23 putts to fashion his 67. He chipped in at the par-4 12th, part of five birdies on his home half.
“The rain came at a good time,” he said. “I had about a 15-footer on 10 and had a little bit of time to practice my putting. I holed it and it got me back in the game.”
Hard storms hit the course on Wednesday night and again on Thursday morning. The start was delayed because of 1 1/2 inches of rain overnight along with some wind damage. Murota, in the first group off the 10th tee, was halfway through his second nine when another powerful thunderstorm ripped through the area. It delayed play for 3 hours, 11 minutes.
O’Meara called the conditions “trying” but he avoided problems all day except for a bogey at the uphill, par-4 ninth hole. In eight seniors starts this year, he’s had three top 10s and has been no worse than a tie for 14th.
“I felt like I kept my mental composure out there, hung in there, stayed in the game,” O’Meara said. “The tough holes, I hit some good drives and when I hit a bad drive I was just off in the rough.”
In the clubhouse with 69s were Lonnie Nielsen and Bruce Vaughan, while Texas club pro Perry Arthur was 3 under through 10 holes when play ended.
Watson, who won the 2001 Senior PGA, was at 70 along with Des Smyth and Massachusetts club pro Kirk Hanefeld. Nick Price, a two-time winner of the PGA Championship and also a former British Open champion, was at 2 under through nine holes when darkness came.
Watson was particularly pleased with his start.
“Two-under is a good score,” he said. “It’s not easy to play under wet conditions and to stop and start. It was a long day and you just had to be prepared for the second go-round, which I was.”
John Cook and Bobby Clampett were at 71. At even par were Tom Kite and Corey Pavin, along with birthday-boy Steve Pate. Pate turned 50 on Thursday, just getting into the field in the 50-and-over event.
Other prominent finishers included Jay Haas with a 73 that included a triple-bogey 7 at the 16th hole, and Mark Brooks with a 74. Brooks won the PGA Championship at Valhalla in 1996.
Rusty Miller can be reached at http://twitter.com/rustymillerap