By T.J. Auclair, PGA.com Interactive Producer
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Thick air, a light mist, overcast gray skies and temperatures in the 50s.
Sounds like Scotland, right? But, certainly not the type of conditions you’d expect on the Friday morning before Memorial Day in Louisville. However, those are precisely the conditions that greeted players Friday at Valhalla Golf Club, site of the 72nd Senior PGA Championship presented by KitchenAid, for the completion of Round 1 and the start of Round 2.
While temperatures stayed cool throughout another marathon day of golf, several players were hot.
Japan’s Kiyoshi Murota was solid yet again, firing a 5-under 67 to get to 11 under for the tournament and a four-shot advantage over Nick Price (67-70) and Hale Irwin (69-68), who will turn 66 next week.
“Today I felt really great,” Murota said through a translator. “The course conditions were excellent. The wind was at a minimum and I tried to do my best and I've been successful. And I'm so gratified.”
Murota teed off late Friday afternoon, came straight out of the blocks with back-to-back birdies on the first two holes and made the turn at 3 under. The excellent play continued on the back side, as Murota picked up birdies at Nos. 10, 13, 17 and 18, all after superb approach shots that set up putts inside of 10 feet.
A four-shot lead is impressive. Especially when the first page of the leaderboard is splashed with names like Price, Irwin, Mark O’Meara and Tom Watson (O’Meara and Watson are both tied for seventh at 4 under), but Murota wasn’t going to get ahead of himself.
“Right now I have no particular thoughts about the fact that I have achieved a better score than those big-name golfers, because we have two more days,” Murota said. “Tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. Let's wait until two days from now before making any kind of a judgment or assessment as to how well I have done.”
Prior to this week, Murota noted that his three biggest achievements in golf were shooting 24 under in a four-round tournament; winning the Senior Pro circuit in Japan twice; and winning the Pacific Masters.
If he won the Senior PGA Championship on Sunday, Murota said: “[It would be my biggest achievement] in America. It's an important victory, it would be, yes. In America.”
Other pursuers include Loren Roberts and Olin Browne. They will start the third round tied for fourth, five shots off the lead at 6 under.
Since so much first-round play needed to be completed on Friday morning. About one-third of the field will need to finish their second rounds on Saturday morning, beginning at 7:30 since play was suspended due to darkness at 8:22 p.m. Friday. After that, the cut will be made and the third round will begin at approximately 10:55 a.m.
Much warmer temperatures – nearly in the 90s – with plenty of sunshine are in the forecast for the weekend.
For Irwin, a win at Valhalla would make him the oldest Senior PGA Champion of all time, supplanting the late Jock Hutchison, who won at the age of 62 in 1947. Irwin isn’t thinking much about age, but he’d love to win the Senior PGA for a fifth time.
“It would be absolutely wonderful,” said Irwin after playing 28 holes on Friday. “Forgetting the age, just to win this championship again would be fantastic. It would be absolutely fantastic. I think this is one of those events, one of those tournaments that we all cherish and we want to play well and have the opportunity to win. If you can give yourself the chance on the last nine holes, which I've always said, if I can give myself a chance, then that's all I can do. And right now, I'm giving myself a chance. I'm playing myself into position to have a good weekend.”
Irwin’s record speaks for itself. He’s a 20-time winner on the PGA Tour with three U.S. Open victories and has racked up an amazing 45 Champions Tour wins. He’s got nothing to prove and, perhaps more dangerously to his fellow competitors, nothing to lose.
Even still, Irwin admitted his rounds of 69-68 here could have been better from tee to green.
The putter, Irwin explained, has been great and has really sparked his spectacular play. He made putts longer than 40 feet on the 16th hole in the first round and the 18th hole (his ninth of the round) in the second round to keep things going.
“I'm extremely happy with what I have,” Irwin said. “I don't care where the lead goes, I'm happy with where I am. I've gotten just about everything I could out of my game the last couple of days.”
Price was one of the 74 players who had to complete his first round on Friday. The result was a 5-under 67, followed by a quick turnaround and a 2-under 70 in Round 2. Impressively, Price has birdied the difficult par-4 sixth hole in both rounds.
“On No. 6, I birdied 6 this morning – I hit a driver or a hybrid and a 3 iron and putted it in from just off the green about 30 feet,” Price said. “And then this afternoon I hit two hybrids to about 12 feet. I'm very proud of those two birdies, because that hole is a beast.”
History shows that Price’s game thrives when it’s hot out and that has him looking forward to the weekend.
“I prefer the heat,” said Price, winner of the Toshiba Classic in March. “So I'm not saying I'm going to play any better, but if you ever look at my record over the years, the heat never was much of a factor for me. I always seemed to play best in summer.”
Tom Lehman, the defending Senior PGA Champion, is tied for 22nd at 1 under par after rounds of 73-70.