Tiger stays in the hunt af­ter solid start at USPGA

➤ Re­lieved McIl­roy fights his way back from shaky open­ing ➤ Day en­joys early con­di­tions to set the pace at USPGA

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - US PGA By James Cor­ri­gan GOLF COR­RE­SPON­DENT

Tiger Woods (right) kept him­self in the frame on a top-class leader­board in San Fran­cisco as Brooks Koepka made an omi­nous start to his bid for a third straight win in the USPGA Cham­pi­onship. Koepka carded a four-un­der-par 66 to lie a shot off the early club­house lead held by former world No1 Ja­son Day, the Aus­tralian card­ing five birdies in a flaw­less 65. Former Ry­der Cup team-mates Justin Rose and Martin Kaymer were along­side Koepka on four un­der, two ahead of Woods. Rory McIl­roy fin­ished level par af­ter a round of 70.

Con­sid­er­ing Tiger Woods has al­ways lived by dif­fer­ent stan­dards to other golfers, his “happy”and “con­tent” must trans­late as “deliri­ous” and “eu­phoric”.

And there is plenty for his army of ad­mir­ers to get all red-shirted about af­ter the 15-time ma­jor-win­ner be­lied so many dis­ad­van­tages to fig­ure on the leader­board at the first ma­jor in 13 months.

Cer­tainly this was worth the wait, re­gard­less of the ab­sence of fans and the sur­real, ster­ile scenes at the 102nd USPGA Cham­pi­onship in San Fran­cisco.

Of course, Woods al­ways has man­aged to bring his own noise – whether it be the roars of crowds or the screech­ing of the headlines – and with a 68, the 44-year-old with a bad back re­minded us once again why so many of us con­sider him the sports pro­fes­sional of his gen­er­a­tion if not be­yond.

Ad­mit­tedly, the winds stayed away and Hard­ing Park, the great Bay City pub­lic course, was in a com­pli­ant mood, de­spite its capri­ciously grown rough, its nar­row fair­ways, its ever im­pos­ing yet en­tic­ing Cy­press trees, its marine layer of cloud and, just for the fun of it, its rather lu­di­crously tucked pins.

Pros know when there is an in­vi­ta­tion on the ta­ble and so the morn­ing wave scrib­bled down their grate­ful RSVPs, com­plete with birdies and ea­gles even.

“We had a big break here,” Ja­son Day, the former world No1, said af­ter sign­ing for a five-un­der 65 that put him in the early club­house lead, ahead of a group in­clud­ing Brooks Koepka and Justin Rose.

Woods could not quite claim those heights, but he did man­age to shoot his low­est first round in a ma­jor in eight years and the best score of his group.

“I let a cou­ple go here and there, but for the bet­ter part of the day, it was a very solid round,” said Woods. Solid? His play­ing part­ners might won­der.

Rory McIl­roy, the world No 1 three weeks ago, shot a level-par 70 and Justin Thomas, the world No1 right now, a shot a 72. Yes, th­ese are early days, but the very fact that they are only made Woods’s be­gin­ning that much more com­mend­able, if not a bit stun­ning.

This was only Woods’s fourth event in 2020 and we are in Au­gust and not all that in­ac­tiv­ity can be put down to the pan­demic. Tipped up per­pet­u­ally – not just as the icon of the game but as noth­ing less than the reign­ing Masters cham­pion – Woods was in the midst of pulling out of a se­ries of events when the lock­down fell. He has only played once since the restart – 40th two weeks ago at the Memo­rial. Rusty but gutsy.

His pitch on his first hole (the 10th) to save par was as mirac­u­lous as his pitch on his eighth hole (the 17th). But we ex­pect that from Tiger.

McIl­roy dropped three shots in a row on his front nine, but fought back valiantly with three birdies in four holes from the 16th (his sev­enth). But then, cu­ri­ously, he went cold and dropped a shot com­ing in. “I feel like I def­i­nitely could have been a few shots lower, but you know, I sort of ground it out and with how I hit it on the back nine, even par ac­tu­ally wasn’t too bad,” he said.

Rose was rather more than con­tent. The English­man turned 40 last week, but apart from that mile­stone all he had to cel­e­brate for his ef­forts of his late was his and his wife Kate’s ground-break­ing foun­da­tion of the Rose Ladies Se­ries in his home­land.

Rose in­sists he is still hun­gry and this round fea­tur­ing six birdies and two bo­geys, only con­firms it.

Kopeka sounds most con­fi­dent though, as he tries to be­come the first player in his­tory of the game to win three suc­ces­sive stroke­play USPGA ti­tles.

“I can def­i­nitely play a lot bet­ter,” Koepka said. “I just need to tidy a few things up, and we’ll be there come Sun­day on the back nine. You know, to win three in a row here, it would be spe­cial.”

Martin Kaymer takes quote of the day, if not of the year as he re­flected on wider is­sues. Af­ter his own 66, the Ger­man, who has slipped from No1 to 125 in the world, was asked about how he coped in the lock­down.

“My per­spec­tive shifted a lot,” Kaymer said. “I al­ways knew we pro golfers were for­tu­nate. But com­pare our lives with the peo­ple I went to school with. I was at home with my Dad and able to stay at a nice home and still be­ing able to have a great life in a cri­sis.

“Nor­mal peo­ple didn’t have that. They had kids in a very small apart­ment, kids run­ning around 24/7, with very lit­tle money to live on. We are so lucky.”

Iron will: Tiger Woods plays from the sev­enth tee dur­ing his im­pres­sive first round at Hard­ing Park yes­ter­day

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