by Jim Slater
KIAWAH ISLAND, United States – Corey Conners defied the hammering winds of Kiawah Island to fire a five-under par 67 and seize a two-stroke lead after Thursday's first round of the PGA Championship.
The 29-year-old Canadian overcame gusting breezes and sandy waste areas that played havoc with many of the world's top golfers as second-ranked Justin Thomas and seventh-ranked Rory McIlroy struggled to 75s on the formidable Ocean Course.
“It was fairly stress-free,” Conners said of his round. “I got a lot of putts to go in. Kept the ball in the fairway for the most part.”
Four-time major winner Brooks Koepka, 2011 PGA winner Keegan Bradley, fellow American Aaron Wise, Norway's Viktor Hovland, Australia's Cam Davis and England's Sam Horsfield were in a second-place pack on 69.
Five-time major winner Phil Mickelson was in an eighth-place group on 70, the 50-year-old US left-hander turning back the clock after four bogeys in the first six holes with four of his six birdies on the back nine to share seventh.
“I was able to right the ship,” he said. “I putted really well.”
Three-time major winner Jordan Spieth, who can complete a career Grand Slam with a victory, opened on 73 while top-ranked Dustin Johnson opened on 76.
Four-time major champion McIlroy, the 2012 PGA winner at Kiawah, made six bogeys while Thomas had three bogeys and a double bogey, all involving the sandy waste areas that penalized off-target shots.
A group featuring three reigning major champions produced mixed results with defending champion Collin Morikawa on 70, US Open winner Bryson DeChambeau on 72 despite four bogeys in a row and Masters winner Hideki Matsuyama of Japan on 73.
“It's diabolical,” DeChambeau said of the course. “You've got to be consistent and persistent and stay patient.”
World number 39 Conners, coming off two top-10 finishes at the Masters in the past six months, won his only US PGA title at the 2019 Texas Open.
Conners was third at Bay Hill in March and fourth last month at the nearby Heritage tournament in his best finishes so far this year.
Conners rolled in a 32-foot birdie putt at the par-5 second, holed another from 33 feet at the par-3 fifth and dropped his approach at the par-5 seventh within three feet of the cup to set up another birdie.
After a bogey at the ninth, when he found dirt on his approach, Conners answered with a 10-foot birdie putt at the par-5 11th, then seized the lead with birdies from 56 feet after laying up at the par-4 15th and four feet at the par-5 16th.
“There's nothing I want to do differently,” Conners said. “I didn't really make any mistakes out there. I played solid all through the bag.”
Koepka, seeking his third PGA title in four years, rallied after opening with a double bogey at the 10th hole.
“Got off to a bad start,” Koepka said. “It helped get the round going, got me focused, got me into a rhythm.”
Koepka dropped his approach inside three feet and birdied the par-5 11th, sank a nine-footer for birdie at 13, answered a bogey at 15 with a tap-in birdie at the par-5 16th.
The world number 12 sank birdie putts of 24 feet at the fourth and 16 feet at the par-3 third and landed his approach inches from the cup to birdie the par-5 seventh.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) May 21, 2021
“Six birdies in any round is pretty good,” Koepka said.
Koepka, a 31-year-old American who won the 2017 and 2018 US Open and 2018 and 2019 PGAs, is still fighting pain from right knee surgery in March.
“I don't need to be 100% to play good,” Koepka said. “I'm ready to play.”
– Hovland comfortable –
Back-nine starters like Koepka, Wise and Hovland played nine consecutive holes into the wind.
“You're just trying to hang on for dear life those nine holes,” Koepka said.
Bradley, who hasn't won in almost three years, had tap-in birdies on three par-5s and rolled in a 35-footer to birdie the ninth.
“When you go out there and perform, it feels good, especially on a course like this,” Bradley said. “It's a little more pressure. The atmosphere is different.”
Hovland, a 23-year-old seeking his first major triumph, won his first two US PGA titles last year at the Puerto Rico Open and Mayakoba Classic in Mexico.
“I can't remember the last time I felt as good as I did today on the golf course,” Hovland said. “I really felt comfortable off the tee. I hit a bunch of fairways and I was able to hit a bunch of greens as well.”