Bethpage: Defending champion Brooks Koepka, chasing his fourth victory in eight major starts, opened with a record-equalling low score to grab the lead at the 101st PGA Championship while inconsistent Tiger Woods struggled at Bethpage Black. Koepka on Thursday fired a seven-under-par 63, the day’s only bogey-free round, to take a one-stroke lead over New Zealand’s Danny Lee after 18 holes while Woods, in his first start since snapping an 11-year major drought at last month’s Masters, settled for a 72 and a share of 51st. Third-ranked Koepka closed with a 33-foot birdie putt to set a course record and match the lowest round in tournament history.
“That was one of the best rounds I’ve played probably as a professional,” said Koepka, who turned pro in 2012. It was the second 63 in as many years at a PGA Championship for the 29-year-old American, who joined Australian Greg Norman and Fiji’s Vijay Singh as the only players to shoot so low twice in majors. Lee closed with back-to-back birdies to shoot 64, added distance with his driver the key to his low round of 2019 and in 10 career major starts. Tommy Fleetwood, trying to become the first Englishman to win the PGA since Jim Barnes in 1919, shot 67 to stand a distant third, one stroke ahead of France’s Mike Lorenzo-Vera, South Korean Kang Sung and Americans Chez Reavie, Luke List and Pat Perez.
A pack of eight on 69 included major winners Phil Mickelson, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and top-ranked Dustin Johnson. Spieth would complete a career Grand Slam with a win while Johnson’s top ranking is vulnerable if he doesn’t claim the Wanamaker Trophy. Both Koepka and playing partner Woods said his round could have been better, perhaps below the record 62 fired by South Africa’s Branden Grace in the 2017 British Open. He charged with four birdies in six holes before sinking a 10-footer to save par at the sixth ahead of his closing heroics. “He played well,” Woods said. Only two of eight prior players who fired major-opening 63s won titles, Jack Nicklaus at the 1980 US Open and Ray Floyd at the 1982 PGA.
Koepka, who seeks a third consecutive US Open win next month, could become the first player to hold back-to-back titles at two majors, but no player has ever repeated as a US Open and PGA champion. Sixth-ranked Woods, coming off his stunning 15th major victory in last month’s Masters, endured a nightmare day in his first competitive round since capturing his 15th career major title 33 days ago at Augusta National. On the same course where he won the 2002 US Open, Woods opened with a double bogey at 10 after finding rough, laying up and blasting over the green.