AKRON, Ohio — We’re one week away from the PGA Championship, the last major of the year.
If the Bridgestone Invitational has any cachet, and we’ll leave that debate for another time, it’s that the best players of the world come together on PGA Championship Eve and give us a potential sneak preview of who’s ready to win a major next week and who isn’t.
Of course, you can’t make snap judgments since Firestone Country Club’s South Course has weird hazards like, oh, tree-lined fairways, lush rough and perfect, lightning-fast greens while PGA site Whistling Straits has few trees, wispy fescue, a thousand tiny bunkers and rough-hewn (though man-made) dunes. The two courses are as similar as Frank Sinatra and Eminem.
Still, we can’t help but look ahead and wonder how the world’s finest golfers are shaping up for the PGA after round one here Thursday?
Well, World No.1 Rory McIlroy is somewhere in the world (between Carmen Sandiego and Waldo, perhaps?) posting photos of his injured ankle. He’s not playing this World Golf Championship and we won’t know if he’s playing the PGA until he tweets again. Anxiously hold your breath at your own peril.
Tiger Woods isn’t here, either. Funny, you win this tournament eight times but you still can’t get in the field. No exemptions for past champions, or anyone else.
Phil Mickelson, the other guy who moves the needle for the general public, triple-bogeyed his third hole and was five over par through seven holes before it was time to look away.
Jordan Spieth, The Man Who Is No Longer Chasing the Grand Slam, bogeyed the par-5 second hole and never reach red under-par numbers at any point during the round. He spent the day looking frustrated over his near-miss putts on the greens and salvaged a round of even-par 70 after a nice closing eight-foot birdie at the 18th. Spieth scouted Whistling Straits early in the week, continuing his habit of Jack Nicklaus-like thorough pre-major preparation. He’s probably more ready than anyone in the field regardless of how he fares this week, although he said he needs to brush a little rust off his game.
“I love playing the week before a major,” said Speith, who played and won the John Deere Classic the week before he nearly won the British Open. “I can find out the tendencies, good and bad, in my game when the pressure’s on. You don’t really get that on Thursday in the middle of the round but you do on the weekend. I feel most comfortable at least having played the week before a major.”
So who besides Spieth is definitely ready for the year’s last major? Firestone Country Club’s South Course, that’s who. It’s been said before and it’s worth repeating: Why not play a major here?
On a perfect scoring day with not much breeze and mild temperatures in the upper 70s, the South Course looked, walked and quacked like a major championship venue. The rough, the trees, the firm greens that were pool-table quick and a slew of diabolical pin positions were the real stars on this day.
Sergio Garcia made a 9 on one hole, though he rescued a round of 71. That was impressive. Troy Merritt, last week’s Quicken Loans National winner, posted 82. That was also impressive, for the wrong reason.
The South was pretty good at not yielding birdies. No one shot better than three-under 67 in the morning half of the field.
It wasn’t until late in the day when Danny Lee, Jim Furyk and Graeme McDowell came in with better scores. Lee shot 65 and Furyk and McDowell, 66. Lee, 25, piled up seven birdies and is one of golf’s hotter players at the moment — he won at Greenbrier, was third at the John Deere Classic and fourth at Quicken Loans.
His major performance has been less impressive. Lee didn’t qualify for the Masters and missed the cuts in the two Opens.
Englishman Paul Casey, among a small handful of players who shot 68s, explained the South Course’s difficulty factor. “Maybe the guys who have great trajectory control and great iron play can get the ball close to the pin because you can’t throw darts around here like you used to,” he said. “This is the firmest I’ve ever seen this place play. It’s tough, and I like tough.”
Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell said the course was playing trickier because of gnarly rough and firm conditions. The greens here, he said, are normally fairly receptive but not this year. “Even the rough is firm and fiery, your ball bounces farther into it,” said McDowell, whose 66 was one of the day’s better rounds.
So considering how formidable the South played, we have to lower the bar when considering who might be ready for the PGA.
Rickie Fowler earns two orange thumbs up. He continued his recent good play and shot 67. You definitely want to draft him for your fantasy PGA lineup.
“It wasn’t the best ballstriking today but it was big, getting the ball up and down,” Fowler said. “Very easily, I could have been ever par or over. I kind of turned an off ballstriking day into three under on a course that isn’t playing easy. I’m definitely happy about that.”
Jason Day stayed upright — his vertigo bout at the U.S. Open remains the golf season’s scariest moment — so that was good. He managed four birdies and shot 69 and, again, is one of your PGA entrants who looks ready.
“I’m pretty happy because it was playing pretty tough out there,” said Day, who finished ninth and fourth at the U.S. and British Opens, respectively, then won the Canadian Open. “The harder, the better, I guess. It’s a tough little track. You’ve got to hit the fairways. You miss fairways, you can’t get close to the pins or you’re missing the greens. It’s very difficult to shoot any sort of score if you miss fairways here.”
Dustin Johnson, your lost-the-Open-on-a-short-putt-sob-story guy, had a quiet day with three birdies. The big basher played the South Course’s two par-5 holes in one over par, however, which is not good.
British Open champ Zach Johnson birdied the first two holes but wasn’t able to stay on that 52 pace. He doubled the ninth hole and, playing with Spieth in the marquee pairing, shot even-par 70. His fellow Open playoff participants had disappointing results. Aussie Marc Leishman and South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen shot 72s.