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PGA Championship 2021: The ominous presence of Brooks Koepka, and other notes from the first day at Kiawah Island

Corey Conners leads the PGA, but Brooks Koepka lies ominously just behind.
Corey Conners leads the PGA, but Brooks Koepka lies ominously just behind.

An ominous start? The custom after the first round of a major is usually to not look at an unfamiliar leader, but the “real lead”, the first prominent player instantly recognisable from the group tucked in behind.

Corey Conners, at the top of the PGA Championship after the first round, is not exactly unfamiliar. But despite trending slightly upwards – the 29-year Canadian’s been seen about major championship leaderboards of late but a T8 at the Masters last month is his best – he’d still be regarded as major surprise and a shock if he went wire-to-wire.

Drop down a little from Conners’ pace-setting five-under 67 and there’s the real lead – Brooks Koepka, the erstwhile Alpha Male of golf, at least until Bryson DeChambeau bulked up and Brooks started suffering knee trouble.

He had a 69, after starting with a double-bogey six. Quite clearly looking a little stiff and tender at times during his round, Koepka might be trying to put more meat on this year’s bogus narrative in golf, the “Year of the Comeback”.

Twice a winner of this event, Koepka has fallen to 13th in the world and had both knees operated on since he won at Bellerive at the end of 2019. The way he declined to bend to pick up his ball and took the long way around a bunker, rather than scale a steep slope, suggests he’s not all well there yet.

‘What an idiot I was’

His start was ignominious, leaving a ball in a bunker at the 10th, his first hole. “I deserved every bit of that double-bogey,” he said. “What an idiot I was.

“The first thing you do when you make a mistake is get the hell out of trouble.”

But as he noted, the “complete mental lapse” snapped him into reality and he was five-under the rest of the way.

“I don’t need to be 100% to be able to play good,” he said. “It’s a major, I’m going to show up, I’m ready to play”.

Given he was probably playing in pain for a good time before he actually got his first knee surgery, this might indeed be an ominous sign for the rest of the field. But on a gruelling, tough course like Kiawah, it’s going to be a proper examination and that starting double could still prove relevant.

Viktor Hovland is a refreshing break from the norm

Joining Kopeka at the “real lead” are some notables – the Norwegian Viktor Hovland, who many consider to be the next young buck to follow Collin Morikawa and Will Zalatoris into contending for a major title.

Hovland, a dead cert for Padriag Harrington’s Ryder Cup team, plays with a beaming smile most of the time, and is a refreshing departure from the robotic US college template from whence he came.

The tricky shot off the edge of a bunker at the fourth yesterday was a perfect example. His discussion with his caddie featuring things you wouldn’t normally hear in the heat of a major championship – not least “I kind of want to try this”.

After he’d hit the recovery shot, he raked the bunker himself as well. Last time you’ll see that this week, you can guarantee.

There’s life left in Phil when the challenge is like this

Phil Mickelson, who has been straining for relevancy recently – specifically because he seems keener than anyone on the risible Saudi Super Golf League concept – had four bogeys in his first six holes, and your correspondent was already gleefully writing him off.

But Phil still has enough guile to get round in tricky windy conditions, and he was five-under for his last 12 holes.

It reminds one of Mickelson’s success of adapting his game over the years for conditions that would have hamstring him in his youth.

The best illustration of this was his 2013 Open victory at Muirfield. He consider that as his career best, because conditions were so alien to the way he grew up in the game.

Kiawah is in no way a links course, but there are sea winds to deal with and it requires a knowledge that Phil worked hard to acquire.

A stringent rule just for some?

John Catlin, the three-time European Tour winner during lockdown and playing with Scotland’s Robert MacIntyre, was issued with a shot penalty for slow play.

It’s the first shot penalty for slow play in a major since Hideki Matsuyama (yes, him) was pinged at Muirfield in 2013.

Catlin, playing on a special invitation after his European successes, was bang to rights. He got a warning on his seventh hole, then went over the time mark again five holes later. Both were on shots from the fairway.

But if the American is the only player in eight years of majors to have had two time breaches, then JB Holmes is the bleeping Roadrunner.

As usual with these things, it smacks of a gesture against slow play rather than actual intent to stop it. Catlin is sufficiently obscure (at least to American eyes) and not a PGA Tour player (which has a huge problem with slow play, even though it largely ignores it).

I’ll be much happier when they apply these so-called stringent regulations those players in the top 25 who habitually break them.

Martin Laird still happy after bogey-bogey finish leaves him just off the lead at the PGA