2015 PGA Champion Jason Day and journeyman pro Brendan Todd each fired 5-under 65s in round one of the 2020 PGA Championship at Harding Park for a one shot lead over a gaggle on nine players that includes two-time defending PGA Champion Brooks Koepka, as well as former major champions Martin Kaymer, Zach Johnson and Justin Rose. Tiger Woods stands three back at 2-under.
Despite pre-tournament warnings from the players that Harding Park would play long and lush, a whopping 47 players finished the day under par and another 20 fired level par 70s, making the start of the year’s first major look more like early-season’s Kapalua Invitational rather than an august major championship.
“Yeah, there was definitely a lot of momentum coming in off the previous finishes that I’ve had: three top 10s, which has been nice. The game feels like it’s coming around. I’m pleased with it,” Day said after signing his clean card – five birdies, no bogeys.
The defining moment of the round was an unlikely, but welcome birdie at the 515-yard ninth, a par-5 for mere mortals like you, Dear Reader, but converted to a par-4 for the championship. After a smooth 305 yard drive, Day thought he blocked his 5-iron approach from 211 yards, but the ball bounced toward the hole instead of checking up, and left him with a straight uphill five foot putt.
“It was a very dead straight putt, so it was very hard to miss that one,” Day deadpanned.
Meanwhile, Brendan Todd, fresh off last week’s disappointment in losing a late lead at the St. Jude Classic did what all professional athletes are supposed to do at a moment like that: have a short memory. Todd finished his round with a mere 23 putts, T-3 in that statistic.
“It was lights-out today. I couldn’t have putted any better, there’s no doubt, and I did this last week,” Todd stated. “The staff at Harding Park has done a good job providing a smooth surface for us. They have the right bounce to them, they are the right speed and I think that bodes well for good scores.” Todd needed every one of those putts as he only hit 8 of 14 fairways and 12 of 18 greens. Most surprisingly, he is 135th in driving distance with only a 271 yards average off the tee for the day.
Similarly, Germany’s Martin Kaymer also took only 23 putts en route to carding four birdies, along with an eagle on the behemoth 607-yard par-5 fourth hole en route to a 4-under 66 on the 10th anniversary of his winning the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. It’s a shame fans are not allowed at the tournament this year because the 48-foot bomb Kaymer holed from across the green would have touched off an incendiary celebration and kicked the tournament off with the fireworks a major championship deserves.
“I mean, that eagle was very special. I hit a good tee shot, but I thought I needed a bullet with a 3-wood to get to the green,” Kaymer admitted. “I thought if I maybe placed it in the right bunker I’d have a good chance to make birdie, but then I pulled off that bullet and it got on to the green. I was thinking maybe two-putt birdie would be great, and then it went in….I’m not so fine tuned with the long break that we had, but I was very pleased with my putting. That really saved the round today.”
Kaymer comes into the tournament traveling well below the radar screen. While Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau and, of course, Tiger Woods garner a 24-hour news cycle, Kaymer can just go out and play golf. There was no better example of this than Championship Sunday of the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, when I ran into Kaymer at a Starbucks. (He was ordering oatmeal at Starbucks. Who does that?)
Kaymer smiled at me and said, “This is great. No one in here knows who I am.” Mind you, this was right in the middle of when he was completely vaporizing both mighty Pinehurst No. 2 and 154 other golfers in the field.
Kaymer opened that tournament 65-65 en route to a runaway 8-shot curb-stomping. Lonely in his hotel room, pandemic getting him down, and his golf performance merely treading water, Kaymer found inspiration in that 2014 victory this week.
“I knew I was playing okay, but on a golf course like this, okay play doesn’t really get you far. I needed something. So last night I was watching the U.S. Open from 2014, the back nine, trying to get some kind of positivity in my game, because it hasn’t been much recently because of no play,” Kaymer confided. “Definitely that video from last night of me winning the U.S. Open, helped me to believe that my putting was good enough; that my ball-striking was good enough.” Kaymer also won the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in a playoff over Bubba Watson after Dustin Johnson took a 2-stroke penalty for grounding his club in what Pete Dye and Herb Kohler immediately confirmed – right then and there – was a bunker.
“I mean, there’s not much to do right now other than hanging out in your hotel room by yourself,” Kaymer noted laconically. I watched the 2010 PGA Championship also, because of the dramatic finish that we all saw. So I like to go back to those moments. I know you shouldn’t live in the past, but if the past can help you in the present moment, I’ll take it.”
Socrates he’s not, but that’s okay. We only need him to hit golf shots and smile toothily.
Meanwhile Bryson DeChambeau, who does try to pass himself off as golf’s version of a Greek philosopher, had the most tragic-comic moment of the day on the seventh hole, when he snapped his own driver leaning on it while picking up a tee. The club may have been partially damaged on the shot prior as some reported hearing a “strange sound,” upon impact, or perhaps it’s because Bryson swings the golf club like Barry Bonds trying to hit every baseball into McCovey Cove.
“Definitely the ball did not react proper. [sic] I hit it out to the right, felt like I drew it and the ball went to the right and spun up like crazy. I’m like, that’s not normal. So it was surprising, and then I just went over to pick up my tee, leaned on it a little, and the thing just, see ya later.”
I’ll translate that for the DeChambeau-impaired. The shaft tore away form the hosel, which shattered into pieces. Meanwhile, for once, DeChambeau was speechless, all his pseudo-intellectual golfspeak useless as he held driver head in one hand, shaft in another, and his mouth agape in a dumbfounded look that just screamed, “What the hell?” and “Now what happens?”
Luckily for DeChambeau “what happens” is a local rule passed in 2019 that lets you replace broken equipment so long as it didn’t break due to player abuse. That’s fair. Luckily for DeChambeau he next hole was a par-3, so players reps had time to run to where Bryson’s extra gear was stashed, score a replacement, and get to Bryson in time for his next tee shot.
He striped it 329 yards without even blinking. It led to a birdie on the 515-yard par-4 ninth, the second toughest hole on the course.
“That thing has lasted over a year swinging it over 200-mile-an-hour ball speeds. At some point, material is material. You keep wearing it and using it like that, you know, stuff is going to break down. I’m just glad it lasted this long,” DeChambeau explained magisterically. He stands at 2-under, three shots behind the leaders.