CHARLOTTE — A blueprint to beating Quail Hollow seemed to emerge during Thursday’s first round of the 99th PGA Championship.
Hit it long.
The first page of the leaderboard after Day 1 of the last major of the year was packed with some of the longest players in pro golf hitting plenty of 300-yard plus drives, and at the top was a guy named Thorbjorn Olesen. It was fitting that the Dane was there — his first name means thunder bear. His name also is mindful of the hammer-wielding god of Norse mythology.
Olesen made three birdies and a bogey on each nine of the 7,600-yard course and signed for a 4-under-par 67 to grab a share of the lead with Kevin Kisner, a winner earlier this year at the Dean & DeLuca Invitational at Colonial.
“I was driving the ball very, very well, and that made it a bit easier. Coming in with some short irons into these greens was definitely the key to the round,” said Olesen, 27, who averaged 316.5 yards on the two holes that were measured — the par-5 seventh and par-5 15th. “ ... I feel more confident with myself and my game than I probably did a few years ago. A lot of things can happen. I just have to stay relaxed the next few days, still trying to keep the ball in the fairway, and then I know I can hit it close and make some birdies.”
Olesen and Kisner are one shot clear of five players, including big-hitters Gary Woodland, Brooks Koepka and Grayson Murray. In a group two back was Tony Finau, who turns heads on the driving range with his length.
At 1 under and three back were a trio of bombers — Hideki Matsuyama, who won last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and 2015 PGA champion Jason Day — and a bull of a man, Jon Rahm, who averaged 320 yards on the measured drives.
Koepka overpowered Erin Hills in Wisconsin to win the U.S. Open in June. He unleashed some more power on Quail Hollow. He and the other bangers have the ability to take more aggressive lines off the tee — over trees, for instance — that shorten holes immensely. On the 527-yard, par-4 first, Koepka blasted his tee shot over the trees on the right side of the fairway and was left with just a pitching wedge into the green.
With the difficult greens providing a supreme challenge, hitting approach shots with as short a club as you can is pivotal. And the course, already a long one, could play even longer if expected storms arrive the next three days, heightening the need to carry the ball long distances.
“This golf course, it’s a bomber’s paradise,” said Koepka, who averaged 314 yards on the measured holes. “Length is a key factor out here, and especially when it’s as wet as it is, it makes those fairways a bit wider. And if you can keep it in the fairway, you’ll be just fine.”
Kisner followed his own blueprint to the lead — hit fairways and make birdies on the holes that present the least challenge and play for par on the toughest holes. To Kisner, the ones he has to get are the par-5 seventh, the short par-4 eighth, the drivable par-4 14th and the par-5 15th. Kisner made birdies on all four and added two more to offset two bogeys.
“I’m going to say every course we play is a bomber’s course anymore. But if they are not playing from the fairway, I wouldn’t want to be doing it,” Kisner said. “The rough’s brutal. I don’t care how far they hit it. If they are having 7- or 8-iron, it’s still going to be difficult to get on the green. The greens are so firm, you can’t control your spin. If I can just keep hitting fairways, I’m going to like my chances.”
While the longest club in the bag can be a huge weapon, the shortest club in the bag will be just as significant. The new Bermuda greens — they’re just 15 months old — caused problems for all the players. Reigning British Open champion Jordan Spieth, who is trying to become the youngest player to win the career Grand Slam, needed 32 putts to shoot 72.
The grain of the greens was causing havoc, the speed of the greens was causing headaches. Many players said the greens could use a touch of water to slow them down a touch. The forecast calls for just that.
“The greens? They are really fast. I thought they had a lot of difficult pins out there. That’s what is very tough about this golf course,” Johnson said after his 70.
“With some of the pin locations, these greens are the fastest greens I’ve ever played,” Koepka said. “And the thing is, they are only going to get faster and firmer. I can’t imagine how much faster they are going to get.”
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