Woodland leads PGA, Fowler one back, Zach two behind

Writing from Town and Country, Missouri

Thursday, August 9, 2018

One of these years, almost everyone with a whit of knowledge about golf and golfers believes, Rickie Fowler will win a major championship.

If you believe the Players Championship is a major, then it’s already mission accomplished.

Most people think it isn’t, never mind the deeper field than any of the four majors, so Fowler is still considered in the no-major wilderness. He’s been close, but close doesn’t get to kiss the trophy, Wanamaker or otherwise.

Maybe this week is the week in one of those years. Fowler, wearing a yellow shirt to honor late pal Jarrod Lyle, tore into Bellerive Country Club early and scored a 5-under-par 65 before anybody could stop him. Of the other 155 players in the field, only Gary Woodland, who grew up a state away in Topeka, Kan., could surpass that.

Woodland, who has never contended in a major championship, poured in enough birdies to score 6-under 64 to take the lead in the 100th PGA Championship in the steambath of the afternoon heat. Fowler is right behind, South African Brendan Stone and two-time major winner Zach Johnson follow at 4-under 66, and eleven players, including world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Justin Rose, Stewart Cink and Ian Poulter, are tied for fifth at 3-under 67 entering Friday’s second round.

Before the humidity wick was turned up to infinity, a goodly number of the 35,000 or so on the premises had a great time chasing Fowler. He went through the back nine of this Robert Trent Jones-designed classic in 1-under, then birdied the first, third, seventh and eighth holes on the front side to race home in 4-under 31. The feature attraction was a 32-footer for birdie on the par-4 seventh, a dogleg left that, at 402 yards, is short by modern standards.

Bellerive, where Gary Player battled to win the 1965 U.S. Open, where Nick Price conquered to capture the 1992 PGA and where Camilo Villegas raced to victory in the 2008 BMW – the old Western Open – has always been considered a formidable test. As far as the young and old in the field hit it now, no course is a formidable test. Fowler had 157 yards left with no more in his hand than a 9-iron on the seventh because he laid up off the tee. Others dared to hammer their shots over the trees.

“I’ve always been a good mid iron and long iron player, so get me in the fairway and with the soft greens, I feel we can pick the golf course apart as long as we play smart and within ourselves,” Fowler said.

That’s true of much of the field, but Thursday, only he and Woodland truly got the job done. Dustin Johnson tied Fowler at 5-under after a string of three birdies through the 13th, but unaccountably missed the 14th green and bogeyed, as he did the 17th to finish 3-under.

While Fowler said the course isn’t a series of driver-wedge templates, that “some mid-irons” are used, he also said, “If you hit fairways and greens it’s not hard. It’s fairly generous off the tee, you can definitely play back on some areas to where it’s maybe a little bit wider.”

Fowler used that stratagem to hit 11 of 14 fairways and 16 greens in regulation.

Dull golf can be great golf in a major if the putts fall.

What Fowler has to do is keep it going. He was up and down like an elevator last week at Firestone, and has too often had at least one bad round in the four weeks a year where everybody cares.

“We took care of what we needed to take care of today, and we move on to Friday and go do what we need to go do tomorrow,” Fowler said.

Woodland left a 15-footer for birdie inches short at the 18th or he’d have tied the PGA Championship record with a 63. Regardless, 64 to lead when making 152 feet 5 inches of putts is more than a full day’s work. He bogeyed the first hole and birdied seven of his last 11. Clearly, adjustments to his putting are paying off.

“It’s nice to see results to back up the work you’ve done,” Woodland said. “I hit a lot of putts the first seven holes I thought I made and didn’t go in. It gets frustrating.”

Then they fell like hailstones on a stormy day, including a 44-footer on the par-4 11th, a 23-footer on the par-4 12th, and a 22-footer on the par-3 16th. All for birdies, and all to the delight of what he estimated were 75 to 100 backers from back home. All on greens that are patchy in parts and deliberately slowed up to survive the week.

“It’s so hot here in the summer, the greens are soft and slow, and that sets up for me,” Woodland said.

Zach Johnson was a handful of groups behind Woodland and only two strokes behind at day’s end, after a brilliant par save on the 17th. He nearly knocked the flagstick down with his approach at the 18th and signed for a saucy 66.

“I’m trying to eliminate the big, big number,” Johnson said of the save.

Stone, who closed the show at the Scottish Open with a 60 to win, had only one bogey in an otherwise-impeccable round, including birdies on two of his last three holes to nudged within a stroke of Fowler.

“It comes down to confidence, really,” Stone said. “I’d played well coming into the Scottish. My game feels fantastic. I hit it really well, the rhythm was spectacular, and I saw the putting lines all day.”

That was the reverse of last year at Quail Hollow, site of the 99th PGA, which Stone said “chewed me up and spit me up.”

Changing to a blade putter from a mallet, he said, improved his putting “leaps and bounds. I got one made by the guys at Ping the Monday of the Scottish Open and haven’t looked back since.”

Streelman opens 2-over

Kevin Streelman, the only Illinois-connected player in the field, arrived at Bellerive on Monday, but didn’t know for two days whether or not he would be able to tee it up when the bell rang.

He played nine holes on Tuesday to reacquaint himself with Bellerive, where he finished in a tie for 22nd in the 2008 BMW Championship, and another nine Wednesday, after which he got the word. Thomas Bjorn’s back injury hadn’t improved, and he withdrew. Streelman was in.

The result: A 2-over-par 72 thanks to a solid par save at the last.

“It’s a course where, if you have a great nine holes, you can get right back in it,” Streelman said.

Off the course, Streelman recently visited the White House with a number of other PGA Tour pros, dropping by during the week of the Quicken Loans Championship at nearby TPC Potomac. He ended up chatting up President Trump on golf topics. Calling himself a centrist, with strong views of issues on each side, Streelman said the visit was as much to honor the office as anything.

Around the PGA

Zach Johnson, seeking a PGA to go with his Masters and British Open titles, birdied the last from two feet after a spectacular approach for 2-under 33 to match his outward nine and jump into joint third. ... Tiger Woods had a ho-hum Bellerive debut, scoring even-par 70, with four birdies, two bogeys and a double-bogey. He opened with bogey-double and clawed his way back to even par with a 10-foot birdie putt on No. 8, his penultimate hole. Woods had only played practice rounds at Bellerive before Thursday. The 2001 WGC American Express tournament was cancelled after the September 11 attacks on Tuesday of tournament week, and Woods missed the 2008 BMW Championship because of his post-U.S. Open victory knee surgery. ... Phil Mickelson opened with a 3-over 73. ... The course record of 8-under 62 was set by Jim Furyk in the rain-delayed second round of the 2008 BMW.

Tim Cronin

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