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For most of the day, it seemed like Rickie Fowler would carry the 18-hole lead going into Friday.
Then Gary Woodland caught fire on the back nine and soared to the top of the leaderboard, shooting a six-under 64 in the first round of the 2018 PGA Championship. Woodland has a one-stroke lead over Fowler, who sits one ahead of Zach Johnson and Austin Cook in a tie for third place. Eleven players, led by Jason Day and Dustin Johnson, are tied for fifth place at three under.
Woodland, who had a large contingent of friends and family as part of his gallery, birdied seven of his final 11 holes and had an incredible putting day. The PGA’s strokes gained metric had him picking up 7.3 strokes over the field.
Justin Ray of Golf Channel noted Woodland’s 152 feet of putts Thursday is the highest number of his career.
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Company at the top.
@GaryWoodland is tied for the lead at the #PGAChamp
“This is as close as I’ve ever played to home,” Woodland told reporters of St. Louis’ Bellerive Country Club. “Which is awesome. I have a million friends and family here, which is really cool. We’re kind of in enemy territory down here in Missouri. We’re big Kansas people. But the Missouri fans were nice to me today as well and I really fed off the energy that was out there surrounding the group.”
Woodland has never finished any better than 12th in a major championship. He’s been in the top 20 just twice in his career.
Woodland’s scorching back nine unseated Fowler, who put himself in a good position to win his first major championship before he turns 30 in December. Fowler hit 88.8 percent of his greens in regulation and carded a lone bogey—a frustrating blunder on the par-three 17th—against six birdies on his way to 65.
“It’s not something I necessarily worry about,” Fowler told reporters of his habit of coming just short in majors. “Keep putting ourselves in position, get in contention, we have had plenty of runner-ups, Jack had a lot of runner-ups, we’ll just keep beating down that door.”
Fowler has finished in the top five in majors eight times, including three second-place disappointments.
Johnson, the world No. 1, sat at five under after birdieing three straight from Nos. 11-13 before faltering down the stretch. He missed a 14-foot par save on the 14th to drop a stroke and then hit his tee shot into the water on the par-five 17th, which played at nearly 600 yards Thursday.
Day spent his first round playing deadly accurate golf, reaching all but one of his greens in regulation and hitting the fairway on 85.7 percent of his tee shots. Unfortunately, many of the putts Day left himself were long after his approach so he wasn’t quite able to hit the low number he wanted. Still, it was a strong building block round for the weekend.
Perhaps most disappointing was the threesome of Justin Thomas, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, who combined to shoot just one under. Thomas is the leader among the trio with a one-under 69. He shot three under on the back nine (that group’s front) before faltering a bit once the group made the turn, including a bogey on his final hole.
Woods and McIlroy both sit at even after inconsistent days. Tiger’s morning went off the rails quickly, as he went bogey-double on his first two holes to dig himself a three-stroke deficit. He held tough, though, quickly birdieing the next hole to right the ship before finishing the round at even.
“I was able to grind out a score today,” Woods told reporters. “It kept me in the golf tournament.”
McIlroy carded nine straight bogeys on his final nine holes in what was mostly a quiet round.
“It was pretty cool to be out there 8:30 in the morning and have an atmosphere like that,” McIlroy said. “J.T. and I were saying it’s going to get a little crazy tomorrow afternoon. So we’re looking forward to that.”