SPRINGFIELD, N.J.—You can’t win a major championship on Thursday but you can lose one.
We’ve got three more rounds to sort out who might capture this 98th PGA Championship, but we already know some familiar names who look destined to be also-rans, or worse, because they are way, way, way back in the rear-view mirror of first-round leader Jimmy Walker, who shot 65, five under par.
You think the Olympics golf event will be lacking some big names? This PGA’s weekend leaderboard may have some major stars missing in action, too.
Let’s start with Dustin Johnson, your United States Open champion. Johnson was five over par on Baltusrol Golf Club’s opening nine, then added a double at the 11th hole when his low shot from a fairway bunker hit the bank and caromed back into the sand. He capped his round with a bad bogey on the par-5 18th hole that left him at 77.
Another straggler is Rory McIlroy, a four-time major winner and former No. 1 in the world. He posted a four-over 74. That’s nine behind Walker, if your calculator isn’t handy.
McIlroy battled his putter… and lost. He hit 13 greens in regulation and needed 35 putts. The total length of his 18 made putts was just over 37 feet—an average about two feet per putt. Simple math says that’s not good. For comparison’s sake, Walker holed 85 feet worth of putts while Emiliano Grillo, who shot 66, holed strokes covering a total of 127 feet. It’ll take a couple of low rounds for McIlroy, who made no birdies, to even think about continuing his streak of winning every other PGA that began in 2012 and 2014.
“First and foremost, I have to play a good round to get into the weekend tomorrow,” a disappointed McIlroy said. “That’s the first objective. I’m happy with my game from tee-to-green. I’m driving the ball as well as I have, ever. When I get on the greens, it’s just a different story. I’m struggling with the pace. There were a couple of putts from quite a short distance that I left short. That’s the thing that surprised me. They look much quicker than they are. So I need to be a little more aggressive.”
American Olympians Bubba Watson and Matt Kuchar aren’t looking great, either. Watson finished birdie-birdie on the closing par-5 holes to save a 71 while Kuchar made a pair of doubles on the front side en route to 74.
Phil Mickelson, Jordan Spieth and Masters champion Danny Willett aren’t done, but they’re in fair-but-stable condition. Mickelson, runner-up at the recent British Open, played with McIlroy and was four over par through 11 holes but picked up three birdies on the way in to salvage a 71. Spieth, a non-factor in either Open, birdied two of the last three for even-par 70, while Willett shot 71.
“One bad tee shot caused my double bogey and the rest of it was on the greens,” said Spieth. “I left quite a few putts short, which a lot of people did. They looked glassy and then they didn’t putt that way.”
On the plus side, Walker’s 65 left him one ahead of Argentina’s Grillo, England’s Ross Fisher and Germany’s Martin Kaymer, whose 66 was the best score in the windier afternoon conditions. New British Open champ Henrik Stenson was in a quartet of players at 67 while Jason Day, golf’s current No. 1 ranked player, and Rickie Fowler were among those stacked up at 68.
Baltusrol’s thick rough and challenging greens kept scores from going markedly low on what was a hot but otherwise ideal scoring day.
“The greens are absolutely perfect,” said Grillo, who putted beautifully en route to six birdies in the morning. “There’s not a single blade of grass out of place on this course. There was no wind. It’s hot. The ball is going pretty far.”
The wind picked up later in the afternoon as a storm front approached, putting that half of the field at a distinct disadvantage.
Walker, 37, is hoping to turn around a disappointing season this week. He got off to a good start by finishing fourth at Torrey Pines in February and sixth at Doral but he’s suffered a quiet summer, missing the cut in the U.S. and British Open. He shared a rental pad with some fellow players at Royal Troon and was the only housemate who failed to play the weekend.
“They all knew I was the only one who missed the cut,” said Walker, who stuck around through Sunday despite not playing. He didn’t practice, either, since the greens were slow and it was windy. So what do you do on Scotland’s quiet west coast with time to burn? “When the first guy comes back and wants a cocktail, you have one, too,” Walker said with a laugh.
Last week Walker finished 14th at the Canadian Open and was encouraged because he was finally holing some putts. Overall, he’s been frustrated on the greens for most of the summer.
“I just haven’t been scoring,” he said. “It’s just been stale and stagnant all year. I haven’t ever played well at the end of the year, I’ve started strong and haven’t capitalized, but I know there’s time to play well. It would be nice to flip that around.”
This has not been the kind of year anyone expected from a player who won five times in 2014 and ’15. He has fallen to 48th in the world rankings, 57th on the money list and he’s on the outside looking in at the United States Ryder Cup team, where he’s 29th on that points list. Walker was among the few bright spots of the American team’s loss two years ago at Gleneagles.
“I’m not accustomed to sitting where I am on the list,” Walker said. “I would like to keep jumping up. I definitely want to play Ryder Cup. So to play solid at the end of the year could get you the nods. Those are the goals. I’ve been working hard to get there.”
His Thursday 65 was the lowest score he’s ever posted in a major championship.
It could be a first step toward getting back on the Ryder Cup team — and adding some individual glory along the way.