Louisville, Ky. — Rory McIlroy has opened the PGA Championship with a 5-under 66, living up to the hype as a big favorite to win the final major of the year.
McIlroy bounced back from a double bogey at the 10th hole, where he knocked his second shot over a fence and took a one-stroke penalty.
After a bogey at No. 11 dropped him to even on the day, McIlroy ripped off a string of four straight birdies to surge back up the leaderboard Thursday. He just missed an eagle putt at the 18th, tapping in for his fifth birdie in the final seven holes.
Coming off wins at the British Open and Firestone, McIlroy is just one stroke off the lead at Valhalla, trailing Lee Westwood, Kevin Chappell and Ryan Palmer.
Here are some other things you should know about the first round of the 96th PGA Championship:
*Valhalla Golf Club was there for the taking Thursday with receptive greens, relatively soft fairways and no wind. England’s Lee Westwood proved just how vulnerable it was when he followed his double with nine birdies — nine! — and shot 65, 6 under par, to share the lead with Texan Ryan Palmer and Kevin Chappell. Westwood, an Englishman who relocated to south Florida a few years ago to improve his chances of getting out from under that Best Player to Never Win a Major label, simply picked up where he left off, which was shooting 63 in the final round of last week’s Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone. “A bit of momentum is a wonderful thing,” he said.
Valhalla was so vulnerable that the all-time major championship scoring record was in sight when Palmer, a three-time PGA Tour winner whose last victory came in the 2010 Sony Open, was seven under par on the par-71 track with two holes left. All he needed was a birdie-birdie finish for 62 to break the long-standing mark fo 63. Palmer admitted that 62 did, indeed, pop into his head and he went for it but he bogeyed his 17th hole instead and settled for 65. “I’ll take six under going into tomorrow,” he said.
*You’re excused for thinking this feels like a World Cup soccer sequel with players on the leaderboard’s first page from the likes of Italy (Edoardo Molinari); Finland (Mikko Ilonen); The Netherlands (Joost Luiten); Austria (Bernd Wiesberger); France (Victor Dubuisson); Sweden (Henrik Stenson) and England (Westwood, Ian Poulter), to name a few. What, no Cameroon?
*He’s not No. 1 this week… yet. Rory McIlroy, the No. 1 golfer in the world and the game’s hottest player following successive wins in the British and Bridgestone Opens, blew his approach shot out of bounds at the 10th hole and suffered a double bogey. McIlroy responded with birdies on the next four holes, then narrowly missed an eagle putt on the final green to shoot 66 and join a tie for fourth with Jim Furyk, Chris Wood, Molinari and Stenson. If you have a funny, oh-oh kind of feeling about this PGA, it might be because the courses were wide and soft or wet when Rory won all three of his major titles and the Valhalla weekend weather forecast is wet. Showers Thursday night, thunderstorms Friday afternoon, a 50 percent chance of more showers and storms Saturday and a 30 percent chance of rain Sunday.
*Phil Mickelson won the Most Hideous First Shot Award for his skanked tee shot on the tenth hole that went so far left that you’d be tempted to nickname him Lefty if that wasn’t already his nickname. It was ugly. “I was lucky it wasn’t out of bounds,” Mickelson said later, shaking his head and grinning. “Horrific.” He also was a contender for best comeback, salvaging a two-under 69. In other words, classic Phil.
*Lee Westwood outdid Mickelson for Worst Opening Hole. His drive came to rest in the fairway in the butt end of a divot, hit a chunky iron shot short of the green, got too cute with a chip shot and missed a four-foot putt to rack up a double bogey. “I was in a good frame of mind on the second hole,” he joked. “Get the double bogey out of the way, I think.”
*Chappell, a former NCAA champion from UCLA, needed only 24 putts for his 65. He sank a 30-foot birdie after a poor wedge shot on the fourth hole and holed out a lengthy greenside bunker shot at the 10th after another poor approach. It’s been a disappointing year for Chappell, 28, whose only top-ten finish all season was a tie for tenth at Colonial. “There’s been a few screws loose that needed tightening,” he said of his struggles. “I haven’t putted great so it was nice to see some putts go in.”
*Course knowledge from when Valhalla hosted the 2008 Ryder Cup was not a prerequisite. Chappell said he didn’t remember that Ryder Cup at all. “It must have been when I was in college when I was losing some brain cells,” he said, laughing. Boo Weekley, who became a sort of folk hero during that Ryder Cup, stumbled to a nine-over-par 80.
*Lefthander Steve Flesch, who was here as a broadcast analyst for Golf Channel, nearly got into the tournament as a contestant. John Huh, the first alternate, made the field Thursday morning when Matt Kuchar withdrew due to back spasms. Robert Garrigus, next in line as an alternate, chose not to travel to Louisville. Apparently, neither did anyone else who was a high-ranking alternate did.
So it ended up that Flesch, who began the week as the 93rd alternate, was incredibly next in line. He had played only four tournaments this year but was coming off his best finish last week, a tie for 21st at the Barracuda Championship in Reno, Nev. He was out on the range warming up in case someone with an afternoon tee time pulled up lame. Flesch didn’t have clubs, shoes or balls with him and had to borrow some, including a driver he got from the golf shop that still had the price sticker on it. Flesch tried to bum a pair of shoes from Sergio Garcia but Sergio’s shoes were one size too big. However, everyone made it to the tee as scheduled and Flesch was not pressed into duty after all. “No luck getting in but huge thanks to the staff at Valhalla… for getting me some sticks,” Flesch said in a Twitter.com post.
*Furyk was just about the least surprising early contender. He led most of last year’s PGA Championship until getting edge out by Jason Dufner and has been racking up Frequent Contender Points for years. He won the 2003 U.S. Open, his only major title, but he’s had a bunch of close calls. Count 14 top-five finishes in majors and 21 top-ten finishes. Last year’s disappointing PGA near-miss at Oak Hill is not in the back of his mind, he said. “That one is long, long, long gone,” Furyk said. “It’s been out of my mind for a long time. These two golf courses couldn’t be more drastically different.”
It might be a good idea to keep an eye on Furyk, who’s having a strong but winless year. He’s got three runnerup finishes (Wells Fargo, The Players, Canadian Open) and was fourth at the British Open and 15th at Firestone the last two weeks. “I’ve had a pretty solid year,” said Furyk, who started working with noted sports psychologist Bob Rotella midway through last and has seen improvement with his putting. “Defintely, his thoughts and ides have left me at east on the golf course a little bit more, and in life.”
*It’s looking worse and worse for the American Ryder Cup team by the day. Besides Tiger and his back issues and Kuchar’s withdrawal, defending PGA champion Jason Dufner quit after ten holes due to bulging disks in his neck and back. He was eight over par when he pulled the plug. “I’m just not able to play golf right now,” Dufner said. That’s three potential key U.S. team members with injury issues at the moment. In a nutshell for captain Tom Watson — not good.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.