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
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