ROCHESTER, N.Y. — When Jack Nicklaus won the 1980 PGA at Oak Hill he was the only man under par. Just three players finished in red numbers at the ’03 PGA here. How the 95th PGA shakes out remains to be seen but the players, with an assist from Mother Nature, have already scored a TKO over the course.
Webb Simpson tied the course record (64) in the rainy morning wave; Jason Dufner broke it (63) on a windless, sun-splashed afternoon. At the end of the day, Dufner led at 9 under par as venerable Oak Hill took a beating at the 95th PGA Championship.
“Obviously the rain, the soft golf course made it scoreable,” said Dufner, who hit 15 greens in regulation and took 26 putts. “But to join history, to shoot a 63 in a major, pretty unbelievable, and to be leading the tournament, even better.”
Dufner had a chance to shoot 62, which would have been the lowest score ever shot at a major championship, but he left his birdie try two feet short. He was nearly overcome with nerves but wiggled his par putt in the side door for a two-shot lead over Jim Furyk (68), Matt Kuchar (66) and Adam Scott (68).
The buildup to this PGA was that the course would provide as formidable a test as ever, what with changes like the removal of front teeing areas on the long, par-4 17th and 18th holes, making two already difficult holes even harder.
So much for that idea. As major championship tests go, Oak Hill, once a head-scratcher, is teetering on the brink of become the golf equivalent of Georgia’s infamous Coaching Principles and Strategies of Basketball final exam in 2001. (Sample question: How many points is a 3-pointer worth?)
“Unfortunately now I think it’s not going to dry out at all to where it will get really tough,” said Masters champion Scott, who played through heavy rain in the morning to get to 7 under — good enough to take the lead, albeit briefly.
Dufner has flown mostly under the radar this year despite T4 finishes at the U.S. Open at Merion and last weekend’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. He has cooled off some after losing the 2011 PGA in a playoff and winning twice in 2012.
Kuchar missed several putts and bogeyed 18 — his only bogey in two days — but still shot 66 to go into the weekend at 7 under. Henrik Stenson, also playing in the afternoon, also had 66 and also was 6 under, three shots off the lead.
“This was one of the times where I’ll check off that I got the good side of the draw for the week, for sure,” Kuchar said. “It was perfect out there for us.”
Playing alongside Scott and Phil Mickelson in the morning rain, Justin Rose shot a front-nine 29 for a 66 to get to 6 under. Then the skies cleared and windless “Soak” Hill got even easier for those who could avoid the choking rough.
Dufner’s day began auspiciously when he spun his approach shot some 30 feet backward and into the hole for eagle at the par-2 second, recalling the 90-minute span in which four players aced the sixth hole at the 1989 U.S. Open at Oak Hill. It rained that year, too, but even so only four players finished under par.
There are 27 players under par halfway through the 2013 PGA.
The 36-year-old Dufner hit driver on 12 of 14 holes. Rory McIlroy (71, even for the tournament) hit his driver eight times for the second straight day. Simpson estimated he hit driver nine times, explaining that the narrow fairways became much easier to hit with tee shots landing and sticking on the squishy short grass.
It seemed that the only players who didn’t take advantage of the conditions were co-favorites Phil Mickelson (71, 2 over) and Tiger Woods (70, 1 over).
Woods never looked comfortable, dropping his club after poor shots and struggling to extricate himself from deep rough around the greens. When he drove the green on the par-4 14th hole, he three-putted for par. He traded birdies and bogeys over the final four holes and is all but out of the tournament with 37 players between him and the lead. “Obviously I’m going to have to put together a really good weekend,” he said after hitting just seven of 14 fairways and failing to help his cause with 32 putts. “This golf course is pretty soft. It’s definitely gettable.”
Mickelson is even further back, although, as he pointed out, his spotty play looked even worse next to Rose and Scott. The lefty struggled to fade his approach shots into left pins and said he played too much break on putts, but he claimed to have played better after a rainy range session with Butch Harmon late Thursday.
“Somebody on the weekend, somebody tomorrow is going to go out and shoot a low round,” Mickelson said as Dufner started his round. “It’s out there.”
“The greens are going to be fairly moist for the whole weekend,” said Scott, whose round included a handful of missed birdie chances. “And even the fairways, probably. So it’s probably going to be right there for the taking for the weekend.”
With a 64 and a 63 already in the books, can there be anything left to take?