ST. LOUIS — Rickie Fowler took the first step toward celebrating his own major championship Thursday.
Three times a runner-up in golf’s biggest events, Fowler ran off five birdies over his final 11 holes at Bellerive and opened with a 5-under 65, giving him a two-shot lead among the morning side of the draw in the PGA Championship.
Still only 29, Fowler already is considered among the best players without a major. It hasn’t been a lack of effort. He was runner-up at the Masters in April, and he had a chance at the PGA Championship last year at Quail Hollow.
“It’s not something I necessarily worry about,” Fowler said. “Keep putting ourselves in position, get in contention … we have had plenty of runner-ups. Jack (Nicklaus) had a lot of runner-ups. We’ll just keep beating down that door.”
Bellerive was accessible in muggy, soft conditions, but still plenty punishing for those who got out of position.
Tiger Woods salvaged his hopes with an important turnaround. He had to make an 8-foot bogey putt on the 10th hole to start his round, put a wedge into the water and made double bogey on his next hole and had a couple of par saves that kept it from being worse. But with a birdie at the turn, another to start the back nine and solid play the rest of the way, he scratched out a 70.
“A lot of things could happen. Not a lot them were positive,” Woods said. “But I hung in there and turned it around. Just happy to be within five right now.”
Ian Poulter, Jason Day and Stewart Cink were among seven players at 67, while Hideki Matsuyama and Webb Simpson were part of the group at 68. Justin Thomas, trying to join Woods as the only back-to-back winners of the PGA in stroke play, let a good start slip away. He was 3 under through six holes and didn’t see a putt go in the rest of the day, two of them for par. He had a 69.
Fowler has seen plenty of celebrations at majors, but only for his friends. He hung around to congratulate Thomas last year at Quail Hollow, Jordan Spieth and Zach Johnson at the British Open. Perhaps his time is coming.
He birdied each of the par 5s, one with a long bunker shot to 8 feet on No. 8 toward the end of his round. He holed a few medium-length putts for birdie, and the bonus came at the par-4 seventh when he holed a birdie from 30 feet away on the fringe.
More than anything, it was clean golf. Fowler missed only three greens and putted for birdie on all but two holes.
“I’ve always been a good mid-iron and long-iron player,” Fowler said. “So you get me in the fairway and with the soft greens, I feel like we can pick apart the golf course, as long as continue to play smart and within ourselves. All you can do is get off to a good start Thursday, and we did that.”
Fowler wasn’t convinced the lead would hold up, even as the wind began to increase at Bellerive for afternoon starters like Spieth and Dustin Johnson. The only other time Fowler had the lead to himself in a major was after the opening round of the U.S. Open last year at Erin Hills. He wound up tied for fifth, another close call.
With rain earlier in the week, and the muggy heat requiring water on the green, low scoring was available. One-third of the morning starters broke par.
For others, it was a struggle.
Phil Mickelson made two double bogeys, one by hitting into the water on the par-3 third hole, another by three-putting from 20 feet. He opened with a 73, still better than the 79 he started with last year in the PGA at Quail Hollow. Ryder Cup hopeful Tony Finau played with U.S. captain Jim Furyk and shot 74.
Woods looked as if he might be headed down that path with his bogey-double bogey start. Maybe it was all in the shirt. He ducked into a portable toilet after his tee shot on No. 12 to change out of a sweat-drenched shirt, though he said he typically does that in the summer after a range session before his round. Whatever the case, he followed with a tap-in birdie and eventually settled into his round.
Day, who won the PGA Championship three years ago at Whistling Straits, made his only bogey from a back bunker on the par-3 sixth. That also was the only green in regulation he missed. It felt easy at times, but not to everyone.
“There can be two different people walk off in the same group thinking it’s the hardest golf course in the world only because you may be on the wrong side of hitting it in the rough … and a guy that’s flushed it all day long thinking it’s a really relatively easy golf course,” Day said. “If you can strike your way around this golf course, you’ll walk off thinking it’s pretty simple.”