By Andrew Both
FARMINGDALE, N.Y. (Reuters) – Defending champion Brooks Koepka made a flying start at the PGA Championship with a dominant display that appeared set to give him a big lead until inspired New Zealander Danny Lee made a late charge in the first round on Thursday.
Koepka made the gargantuan, rain-softened Bethpage Black layout look easy with a seven-under 63 that matched the second lowest round in any major championship.
Lee almost caught Koepka in the afternoon, the South Korean-born, American-based kiwi finishing in style with birdies at the final two holes for a 64.
The two frontrunners had a handy cushion over third-placed pursuer Tommy Fleetwood, who was four strokes behind Koepka in his bid to become the first English winner in a century.
Tiger Woods, in his first competitive round since winning the Masters a month ago, putted poorly for a 72 in the company of Koepka, while Rory McIlroy shot the same score, finally making his first birdie at the final hole.
Other big names were in striking distance.
Americans Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Phil Mickelson, and Australian Jason Day, all shot 69 in the afternoon, while top Europeans Justin Rose and Jon Rahm managed 70.
Bethpage’s fairways are lined with lush, rain-fueled rough, and Koepka said keeping his ball straight had been key.
“If you hit fairways you’re going to be able to hit greens and get the ball close to the hole,” he said.
“So you can definitely shoot a number. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw another good score in the afternoon.”
Prophetic words indeed, as Lee showed.
“Whenever I hit it on the fairway I gave it a good look for birdie and made those putts today,” said the world number 119, who is playing with new-found confidence after working on his driving distance.
“I’m actually interested in myself what I can do out there this week,” said Lee, 28, who has recently become a father.
If Lee milked every last drop out of his round, Koepka left a bit of money on the table.
“I parred two par-fives and missed about a five-footer on number 11 so it could’ve been a hell of a round,” he said.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take it every day but just need to clean a few things up.”
The three-times major champion, who teed off at the 10th hole, bookended his round with monster birdies, a 40-footer at his first and a 33-footer at his last.
Woods was impressed.
“I think that was probably the highest score he could have shot today,” Woods said. “He left a few out there.”
Woods did well to put a disappointing start behind him but was undone by a trio of late bogeys.
The four-times champion also had a trio of three-putts and his 72 included two double-bogeys, the first one coming right off the bat at his opening hole on a crisp Long Island morning.
“It wasn’t as clean as I’d like to have it for sure. Didn’t get off to a very good start,” said the 15-times major champion.
“Then found my way back around. Got it back under par for the day, and let a couple slip away with a couple bad putts and a couple mistakes at the end.”
Koepka, who finished a shot behind Woods at the Masters, is in no mood to let that happen again, and he described his round as one of the best of his career.
“It was great that Tiger won Augusta but we’re at a new week now,” he said.
“Obviously, everybody in New York is cheering for him. You’ve just got to keep battling and find a way through it.”
(Additional reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Toby Davis, Ed Osmond and Ian Ransom)