KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — Five years ago, a leading golf publication chose Kiawah Island as the toughest golf course in America. Some of the best players in the world made it feel like a walk on the beach Thursday in the PGA Championship.
There was no wind in the morning when Carl Pettersson made three birdies on the opening four holes, and not even a freshening breeze could keep the self-proclaimed Swedish redneck from a bogey-free round of 6-under 66. It was his first time in 21 tries to break 70 in the PGA Championship, and it gave him a one-shot lead.
Rory McIlroy was on the practice range in what he described as “flat calm.”
“I really thought that I had to take advantage of the conditions,” said McIlroy, who did just that in a bogey-free round of 67, fresh signs that the 23-year-old from Northern Ireland might be ready to end his major season on a high note.
A hot but picturesque day along the coast of South Carolina even brought John Daly back into the picture at the major where he first came to prominence 21 years ago. Daly, who hasn’t had his PGA Tour card in six years, made an eagle putt and very few mistakes for a 68.
Pete Dye’s intimidating Ocean Course might still get the best of them in the final major of the year. But for one day, it was there for the taking.
“There really wasn’t much wind on the front nine, so I knew I had to keep going low because I figured the wind would get up,” said Pettersson, who won earlier this year down the coast at Hilton Head. “The wind started blowing a little bit on the back nine, and I carried on solid play. So it was a great day for me.”
McIlroy, Gary Woodland, Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano of Spain and Alex Noren of Sweden each had a 67.
It was a good day for Tiger Woods, nothing more.
Despite having to get up-and-down for bogey on three holes, he made enough birdie putts for a 69, a reasonable start as he tries to end the longest drought of his career in the majors. This is his 14th major since he won his last one in 2008, and the last one of an otherwise good season.
“Anything in the 60s is going to be a good start in a major championship,” Woods said. “And I’m right there.”
He had plenty of company, some players who had not been heard from in a while, others that were all too familiar.
Woodland, who started the season with a new coach (Butch Harmon) and injured himself working too hard on the changes, is feeling better and hitting it longer than ever.
“I drove the ball the best I’ve driven it all year,” said Woodland, one of the most powerful players in the game. “And when I drive it like that, I’m playing a game that most guys can’t play out here.”
Daly was in the group at 68 that included former U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy and defending PGA champion Keegan Bradley, who had a birdie-eagle start before he settled into his round.
Adam Scott, in his first major since throwing away the British Open with four bogeys on his last four holes, also had a 68 to quickly get back into the mix.
“So far, so good,” Scott said. “It would be great to put two more rounds together and be coming here Sunday with a good look at the championship. If I don’t, then I’ll really feel like I’ve let it all slip this year for me. So I’d love to use this opportunity while I’m playing well to get in there and have a sniff on Sunday.”
The group with Woods at 69 included Ben Curtis, Ryo Ishikawa of Japan and Pat Perez, playing his first major this year.
Phil Mickelson, holding down the eighth and final spot in the Ryder Cup standings, was all over Kiawah Island and did a remarkable job scrambling to salvage a 73.
“I fought hard today and I kept myself right in it for the most part and should get a bit of a weather break tomorrow morning,” Mickelson said. “It actually felt a little bit closer than it has in a long time. I felt good on the green. My touch was back. I started hitting some shots at some pins.”
The flags started to ripple in the afternoon, though not enough to make Kiawah as frightening as it can be. With so much rain over the last week, including storms that limited practice time before the championship began, the greens were soft and fairways slow.
Those were the kind of conditions McIlroy had when he shattered the scoring record at the U.S. Open last summer at Congressional. More than soft conditions, though, was that bounce in his step while walking down the fairway after blistering his tee shots. He hit 10 drivers, most of them were he was aiming.
McIlroy was bogey-free, and while he failed to make birdie on a couple of the par 5s, he picked up a shot on the field at the 249-yard 14th hole, which features severe slopes off every corner of the green. Leave it to the 23-year-old from Northern Ireland to hit a towering 3-iron that settled 12 feet from the flag, one of only six birdies on the par 3 in the first round.
McIlroy has been a disappointment in the majors this year — much of his season has gone the wrong direction since he briefly rose to No. 1 in the world after winning the Honda Classic in March — but got a pep talk from putting coach Dave Stockton and has spent more time playing instead of practicing technique.