ROCHESTER, N.Y. — The Greater Rochester Open (formerly known as the PGA Championship) found a perfect first-round co-leader in plodding Jim Furyk, who fired a pizzazz-free 65 at Oak Kill Country Club, a fine but unmemorable test of golf that was softened by overnight rains. Furyk's life-sucking monotone is the perfect soundtrack to a tournament struggling for an identity with a leaderboard crowded with randoms. (Raise your hand if you had Kiradech Aphibarnrat in the office pool.) "Well, I'm happy that I played a good round," Furyk said, not sounding very happy. "Trust me, I'll be in a good mood the rest of the day," he said, not sounding like he was in a particularly good mood.
A firm, fiery Oak Hill presents a formidable test, but when a quarter-inch of rain fell Wednesday night the course instantly became less interesting, and an afternoon rainstorm only made things worse. Adam Scott torched the front nine in 30 en route to a 65, and by day's end 49 players were at par or better. "I just got on a bit of a roll," said Scott, who took only 22 putts."I've put a lot into my game the last few years and I'm focusing on the big events." On Thursday there were even complaints about 8-irons spinning back, which is the kind of the thing you see at the Rochester Open, not the PGA. Par was so devalued that Keegan Bradley declared, "I didn't play particularly well and shot 69, which is a really good sign." For him, maybe, but not if you think majors should present an exacting challenge.
With a dry weekend forecast, Oak Hill may yet get up to speed, which made going low during the pushover first round that much more imperative. "We didn't get much breeze," Furyk said. "The rain helped soften the fairways, which in turn makes them a touch wider and definitely makes the greens a lot softer … they allowed us to get very aggressive and get at some tucked pins." Furyk's iron play keyed his round, as he hit 15 greens in regulation.
Furyk's brand of small ball has always been well-suited for the major championships — he has a whopping 18 top-10s, though only one victory, at the 2003 U.S. Open, played on the weakest national championship course in recent memory. This chronic inability to close the deal may help account for his dour countenance on the course; he can still vividly recount all of the heartbreaks. "I look back to the '98 Masters, I bogeyed 15 and hit it in the water and lost by two," Furyk said on Thursday. "'98 [British Open at] Birkdale, was tied for the lead coming down the stretch and didn't hit one bad shot and lost by two because I didn't knock in a putt. U.S. Open at Winged Foot, the U.S. Open at Oakmont, the U.S. Open at Olympic…"
Furyk's career total of 16 victories is one more than recent Hall of Fame inductee Fred Couples, though Furyk has none of Couples's charisma, nor has he spent any time at number one in the World Ranking. It will likely take one more major to get Furyk, 43, into the Hall, but he's not alone in feeling the weight of history: Tiger Woods roared into Rochester fresh off his most dominant performance in the post-hydrant era, but he continued to show his vexing vulnerability in the majors, hitting only nine greens en route to a scratchy 71, which left him in 54th place. Phil Mickelson, trying to win a second straight major and sixth overall, which would tie Nick Faldo for the most in the post-Watson era, jacked his tee shot O.B. on the fourth hole and had to fight hard for a 71. Mickelson played the 9th through 14th holes in four under par but had a vintage misadventure in the trees on the 18th en route to a double bogey.
Meanwhile, the likes of David Hearn (66), Robert Garrigus (67), Marcus Fraser (67), Roberto Castro (68) and Aphibarnrat (68) took over the leaderboard. They have combined for exactly one PGA Tour victory, by Garrigus in 2010. It would be easy to dismiss these unknowns as one-day wonders but don't forget that Oak Hill is the course that gave us Shawn Micheel, whose victory at the 2003 Greater Rochester Open remains his only victory.
A handful of seasoned pros did make a push during the first round, mostly in the afternoon wave. How do you get over making four straight bogeys to blow the British Open? Start by making five straight birdies at the PGA, which Scott did beginning on the fourth hole. Since his rousing 67 to close the 2011 Masters for a second-place finish, Scott has turned into one of golf's most lethal big-game hunters, racking up five other top-10s in the majors, the most important being his breakthrough victory this year at Augusta. It took a thunderstorm to cool him off on Thursday; Scott was still at 5-under, playing the 11th hole, when the weather delay came, and he never recaptured the momentum, playing at level par the rest of the way.
Lee Westwood put himself in position to have his heart broken once again with another 66 that left him tied for third. Matt Kuchar had a typically low-key 67, not making a bogey en route to a share of fifth place, while Miguel Angel Jimenez had a typically interesting round, not making his first par until the 9th hole, a run that included five straight birdies sandwiched by a bogey and double bogey. He finished with a 68 that leaves him in 12th place.
Among the most intriguing names on the board is Paul Casey (67), who climbed as high as number three in the World Ranking, way back in 2009. Casey has struggled in recent years due to injury and the malaise surrounding a divorce but he has been rejuvenated by a win last month at the Irish Open and a new girlfriend in Pollyanna Woodward, a scorching English TV personality. On being in the mix at a major for the first time since 2010's British Open, Casey said, "It's a classic tale of you don't realize how much you miss something until it's gone." He added, "Without sounding sort of cocky, I enjoy it out here. I belong out here. I love it out here. I'm very appreciative of being back on the big stage."
Plenty of players trod the boards on Thursday at a mostly defenseless Oak Hill. Here's hoping the stage feels a little bit bigger by Sunday.