- Rickie Fowler’s first-round 65 seemed like a sure lead early in the day, but Gary Woodland’s back-nine surge pushed him to the top of the leaderboard.
ST. LOUIS — Rickie Fowler was off the course at lunchtime, his five-under par 65 the best in the field with hours to go. He was nothing if not consistent with six birdies and one bogey, out ahead of the Tiger Woods crowd and in before it realized he’d shot the round of the morning.
As the afternoon wore on, Fowler’s lead held, as Woods, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy and the rest of the premier names in the early group of tee times rolled in. It held even as World No. 1 Dustin Johnson marched down the course in the late afternoon and threatened, matching Fowler’s five-under round by the end of his 13th hole. Johnson seemed like the most likely golfer to edge his way to the top, but bogeys on hole No. 14 and then No. 17 pushed him back, and Fowler seemed safe enough.
Enter Gary Woodland. The 34-year-old American who’s No. 44 in the World Golf Rankings started the day innocuously enough, bogeying No. 1 and then making the turn at one under par. But on the back nine at Bellerive, he was locked in, rattling off birdies on 11, 12, 14, 16 and finally 17—the last of which pulled him ahead of Fowler, at six under par, where he’d remain.
Much of the top of the leaderboard was clogged three strokes under par by day’s end. Apart from Woodland and Fowler, only Brandon Stone and Zach Johnson finished better than that; both shot a four-under 66. Among the bottleneck at three under included Ian Poulter, Pat Perez, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Justin Rose. David Muttitt, a pro at Los Altos Golf Course in Albuquerque, finished with the worst score of the opening round: an 11-over 81.
All in all, Bellerive played as expected on Thursday, two days removed from the thunderstorms that slowed an already wet course. “The greens were maybe a touch faster than the practice rounds, but… some of them were slower than others,” Fowler said after his round. “Some were a little quicker. It just depended how much grass was on. I had some downhill putts today that I thought weren't possible to leave short and still did.
“It's fairly straightforward out there as a golf course,” he continued. “It's got some length. It's not obviously playing short. You don't have a bunch of wedges. You get some mid irons. You get some long irons on the par 4s. You've got to ball strike your way around.”
After starting out strong—he was three under par after six holes—Thomas, the defending PGA champion, finished at one under par, still in the hunt. He said after his round that he could have easily shot several strokes better, and the thought that rounds like Fowler’s and Woodland’s would be accessible this weekend was a common one among the top players. “You've got to be really dialed in with your mid and short irons,” McIlroy said after finishing at even par. “If you are and you can put it on the fairway, you can shoot 4, 5, 6 under par.”
Temperatures on Thursday topped out around 90 degrees, cooler than initially forecast but still hot and humid. It’ll be back in the 90s on Friday with a slight chance of rain, but if the precipitation holds, the rest of the tournament should stay dry—and the greens along with them. After keeping the greens artificially slow due to guard against losing them, it might be a wild ride from here; chatter around the club is that the greens might be allowed to speed up as the weekend goes on.