KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — In the 55 years since the PGA Championship switched over to stroke play, there has never been a tougher round than Friday at Kiawah Island.
One score in the 60s, two in the 90s.
Of the 41 players who failed to break 80, nine of them could be found among the top 50 in the world ranking.
Through 11 hours of relentless wind, with gusts up to 30 mph that turned the Atlantic Ocean choppy with white caps, about the one thing that looked vaguely familiar was Tiger Woods making one putt after another. He had a 1-under 71, one of only four rounds under par on the Ocean Course, to share the lead with Vijay Singh and Carl Pettersson going into the weekend.
Just like that, the major known as “Glory’s Last Shot” turned into one last chance for Woods to finally win another major.
“I thought going out today, anything even par or better was going to be a good score,” Woods said. “So I went out today and I accomplished that. It was a tough, tough day. It was blowing all day. I don’t think anyone had an advantage.”
Singh turned a remarkable round, the only player to break 70 with five birdies in his round of 69 that gave the 49-year-old Fijian hope that four years without winning could be about to end — at a major championship, no less.
Pettersson also made big putts, most of them for par and even one for bogey, until the mistakes caught up with him. He had a 74.
They were at 4-under 140, and while Woods and Singh are familiar faces, Woods wasn’t just trying to quell the anticipation by saying this major was a long way from being over. Remember, he had a share of the lead at the U.S. Open this summer until rounds of 75-73 plunged him into a tie for 21st.
Mickelson and Poulter also had 71. The four rounds under par were the fewest for the opening rounds of the PGA Championship since there were only three sub-par rounds in the second round at Oak Hill in 1980.
There would have been five rounds except for a gutsy display of honesty by Michael Hoey of Northern Ireland.
Some six hours after his round, he reported a violation on himself. Hoey had an embedded lie in a sandy area on the ninth hole, brushed sand away to identify his ball, and then forgot to re-create the original lie by replacing the sand. He notified PGA rules official of his oversight. Because it carries a two-shot penalty, Hoey was disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard.
For Woods, the PGA Championship is yet another chance to end four years without a major, and perhaps resume his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 professional majors. Woods won his 14th major in 2008 at the U.S. Open.
“I’ve been in this position many times over my career,” he said. “Again, we’re just at the halfway point. We have a long way to go.”
Six players were atop the leaderboard on this day of survival. Singh was the first to post at 4-under 140, and it didn’t look as though anyone would be able to even match that as the wind never let up on The Ocean Course.
Pettersson stayed in the lead as long as he could until a few errant tee shots cost him at the end of his round and he had to settle for a 74. Woods, playing on the opposite side of the course, showed early on that he figured out something with his putter.
Along with birdie putts of 15 feet and 40 feet on the opening four holes, there was a collection of big par saves — from 20 feet on the third hole, a pair of 8-foot par putts a few holes later. There were even two short par putts that swirled 360 degrees around the cup and dropped.
The only disappointment was the way it ended. After hooking a tee shot that rattled around the corporate tents and allowed him a shot into the 18th, he ran his birdie putt about 6 feet by the hole and three-putted for bogey.
It cost him his first outright lead in a major in three years, but this was not a day to complain.
“It was fun, but it also was tough,” Woods said. “You were getting blown all over the place. It was just a very difficult day.”
Poulter was tied for the lead until a bogey on his last hole, though he showed again that he can thrive in windy, demanding conditions. The last time he was in serious contention at wind-swept Royal Birkdale in 2008, when he was runner-up to Padraig Harrington.
“The golf shots this golf course asks you to hit time and time and time and time again … you really have to hit phenomenal golf shots,” Poulter said. “The room for error is so tiny, and when you get it wrong, you can be 15 feet below the level of the green in a bad lie with not much of a shot.”
The course played so difficult that the afternoon groups were delayed 20 minutes, and one player failed to finish — Joost Luiten of the Netherlands, who was 1 over for the tournament and will return Saturday morning to complete his round. The scoring average was 78.11. The previous record for the PGA Championship was 76.8 in the opening round at Llanerch Country Club in 1958.
Singh stood tall in the wind, however, even as he kept his head down.
“After a while, you don’t really think about your score,” said Singh, whose last major victory was at the 2004 PGA on the first visit to Whistling Straits. “You just think about each hole, each shot and just try not to mess up. It was one of my better rounds. I didn’t strike the ball as good, but I scored really, really well. And I think that was the key.”
There were 44 players under par after the opening day. Going into the weekend, there were only 10.
McIlroy didn’t make a birdie until his 14th hole — a tough par 3 that he has birdied both rounds — and had a 75. He was at 2-under 142, along with Jamie Donaldson of Wales, who had a 73 and was thrilled after his morning round. “That’s the best I can do,” he said.
Scott also had a 75 to join the group at 143 that included Aaron Baddeley (75), Blake Adams (72) and former Masters champion Trevor Immelman (72).
“I thought 2 over today was like shooting 2 under yesterday,” Pettersson said. “I hit some squirrely shots, which is typical when it’s blowing 30 mph. But I hit some really good ones, too.”
Mickelson, who is No. 8 in the Ryder Cup standings going into the final week of qualifying, came out firing into the wind with a 4-iron to about 2 feet and then a driver off the fairway to give himself a decent chance at birdie on the 11th. He didn’t advance any further up the leaderboard. He also didn’t fall too far back, and that was just as important. He was in the group at even-par 144, not knowing what the weekend will hold.
“I was very happy to get off that golf course, I have to say,” McDowell said. “I’m trying to think of the last time I remember a golf course playing this difficult, because it’s a links wind, blowing across a golf course which is super soft, with some of the most difficult pins on the course out there. It’s brutal.”
Daly, who opened with a 68, bogeyed his first three holes and shot 77. Even so, he was only five shots behind.
Woods was not immune to the windy conditions. With a sand wedge in his hand on the third, he knocked it over the green and appeared headed for bogey until his 20-foot par putt was true all the way. He looked solid on par putts at No. 5 and No. 7, and his chip from below the ridge on the ninth stopped a turn from falling.
He never looked as if he would miss, even rolling in a 12-foot par putt on the 17th. The only big blip came at the 18th, his second bogey of the round. Already this week, the PGA statisticians have Woods for 23 one-putt greens. Asked if there was a putting performance that stood out among his 14 majors, he cited the 1997 Masters and 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. He won those two by a combined 27 shots.
Then again, he had put some distance between him and the field.
This PGA Championship remains wide open, and so much depends on whether the wind continues to blow, and the scores continue to soar.
Doug Wade, a club pro from Dayton, Ohio, had a 93. That was one shot away from the PGA Championship record for the worst score. Michael Frye, a club pro from Sedona, Ariz., finished par-birdie-par on three of the tougher holes for a 90.
They weren’t alone, of course. Hunter Mahan and Rickie Fowler had 80, Matt Kuchar an 82, and Nick Watney an 81. It was a long list of suffering, so difficult that no one would embarrassed or angry. Most were just happy to be off the golf course.
“If you had a golf course like this and you asked me to go and play golf in windy conditions, I’d say, ‘No, I’m not going to play.’ I guess nobody is going to go out and play in conditions like this,” Singh said. “But it’s a major, and we have to go out there and just struggle and manage yourself the best you can.”