CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In the Thursday pairing featuring each of the season’s first three major champions, U.S. Open winner Brooks Koepka was the star in the first round of the 99th PGA Championship at Quail Hollow.
Koepka fired a 3-under 68 on a course playing exceptionally long and also provided the trio’s biggest highlight of the day with a spectacular pitch-in from 30 yards away at the par-4 third hole. The 3-under mark was tied for the clubhouse lead when Koepka’s day was finished and the afternoon wave was setting out.
Masters champion Sergio Garcia struggled mightily throughout the round, eventually settling for a 4-over 75 that included two double bogeys in a three-hole stretch. And Jordan Spieth, with a chance to complete the career Grand Slam this week following a scintillating Open Championship win last month, managed to grind out a 1-over 72 thanks to birdies on two of his final three holes.
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Surprisingly, Koepka — one of the game’s longest drivers — birdied just one of Quail Hollow’s three par 5s, the 546-yard 7th, the last par-5 he played of the day. At the par-5 10th hole, his first of the day, Koepka failed to convert a 4-footer for birdie and had to settle for an opening par.
“I feel like I played pretty solid,” the 27-year-old Koepka said. “The first hole, got off to a terrible start and that was kind of my day, it kind of felt like. Wasn't exactly comfortable on the greens. I don't know what that was. I think it had a lot to do with the speed of the greens, how fast they were. With some of the pin locations, these greens are the fastest greens I've ever played. And the thing is, they are only going to get faster and firmer.”
As difficult as the greens were, Koepka was solid fairly solid with 29 putts.
The toughest part of Koepka’s day had little to do with his scorecard. With his tee shot on the par-4 16th hole, Koepka’s ball drifted well right and struck a volunteer square in the head. The volunteer fell to the ground with a considerable amount of blood coming from the side of his head. Once the ball hit the volunteer, it shot 30 yards forward and into the fairway.
Koepka didn’t care much about the lucky break. He was more concerned with the volunteer, who he learned after the round, was doing OK and resting at home.
“I felt terrible about it,” said Koepka, who would bogey the hole. “I mean, that's never fun to walk up and see somebody, you just drilled them. I drilled him in the head, which is probably the worst part. To be honest with you, I felt like crap. He was laughing and joking when I was up there, kept telling me, ‘You got a good break.’ I was like, well, still feel like crap. But yeah, I got his information so I'll probably reach out to him tonight and see how he's doing. I'm sure he's going to have quite a big headache.”
Koepka really seemed to get into the flow of things on the front nine — his back nine — where he snagged four of his five birdies on the day. And it all started with that pitch-in at the third.
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After a drive that sailed left of the fairway and into some scruffy rough, Koepka caught his second shot a bit chunky and it settled short of the green. It was only his second missed green of the day to that point and it didn’t prove to be much of a problem.
“I was trying to hole that, so that was good,” he said. “I did what I was trying to do. But to be honest with you, it was a straightforward pitch, straight up the hill, pretty straight. We've been working on that forever. So it wasn't — I think Rickie, my caddie, even said, ‘Chip it in, get it going,’ right before I did it. So that was a nice little momentum shift, I guess could you say.”
Koepka would bogey the fourth hole, but more than made up for it with three birdies over his final five holes.
Remarkably, Koepka already has six, top-10 finishes in 16 majors played. He seems to know the formula for major success.
“I just stay patient,” he said. “Try not to make a double bogey. If you get out of position, get back in position and give yourself a good chance. Never feel like you're out of the hole. You know, you don't want to leave yourself with too many testy chips, too many testy putts, which is very easy out here. You can definitely do that pretty quick.”