Jimmy Walker and most of the players on the leaderboard after the first round of the 98th PGA Championship have one apparently good thing in common: They haven’t won a major.
Of late, getting that first one hasn’t been the enormous hurdle it once seemed.
For the first time since 2007 the first three majors of the season have been captured by those who earned their first. That’s been the case in five of the last seven majors.
Walker shot 5-under-par 65 at Baltusrol Golf Club on Thursday to take sole possession of the lead, and he certainly fits the profile of the top-quality player with all of the ability to have a breakthrough — like the other three major champions for 2016: Danny Willett, Dustin Johnson and Henrik Stenson.
The late-blooming 37-year-old from Oklahoma owns five PGA Tour victories and has played for the U.S. in the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup. Walker is among the longest hitters and better putters on tour.
“Three first-time major winners this year; I don’t think it’s a coincidence or anything,” Walker said. “They are all good players and it was just a matter of time.”
He smiled and added, “Just keep it rolling.”
Among the 18 players closest to Walker, only three — Martin Kaymer (66), Stenson (67), Louis Oosthuizen (68) and Jason Day (68) — have won a major.
Former Ryder Cup player Ross Fisher, of England, birdied the back-to-back closing par-5s to shoot 66, the same score recorded by 23-year-old tour rookie Emiliano Grillo of Argentina.
Most of the best scores were recorded in the heat of the morning before the greens baked out and a breeze picked up. It will be much softer for the second round, during which heavy rain is expected to fall.
Beyond the top-ranked Day, not many of the world’s highest-ranked golfers were able to solve Baltusrol. To the good was No. 5 Stenson, whose 67 came on the heels of his spectacular British Open win, and No. 7 Rickie Fowler, resurrecting his moribund game — three missed cuts in the last six starts — with a 68.
Mediocre were Jordan Spieth, who didn’t make a birdie until the 16th hole in scoring 70, and Phil Mickelson, who overcame a terrible start to shoot 71.
Then there was awful. U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson had a chance to get to No. 1 this week, but there’s little hope now. He suffered two double-bogeys and bogeyed the easy 18th to score a shocking 77. Rory McIlroy’s frustrations continued. He couldn’t make a birdie in shooting 74.
Ahead of them all was Walker, who only began regularly qualifying for majors in 2014. That year he posted top-10s in the Masters, U.S. Open and PGA, but he’s never contended deep into a Sunday and is leading after a major round for the first time.
At Royal Troon two weeks ago, Walker shared what was dubbed the “frat house” with Fowler, Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson. It was fun, but ultimately a drag when Walker was the only one who didn’t get to play on the weekend.
He chose not to practice in the cold and wind and watched too much TV.
“When the first guy comes back [to the house] and he’s ready for a cocktail, you have one,” Walker said with a chuckle.
The season has been a struggle for Walker. He tied for fourth in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, but has only one top-10 since.
“It would be nice to flip it around,” Walker said. “I’ve really been working hard, and that hasn’t been the case. I have been cranking away and busting it. It just hasn’t showed, which kind of happens sometimes.”
Fowler’s season has been nearly as frustrating. He had a great early run of four top-10s that included a playoff loss to Hideki Matsuyama in the Phoenix Open. But he’s been mostly struggling since missing the Masters cut, followed by a missed U.S. Open cut, followed by a tie for 45th in the British Open.
“You don’t have to sugar coat it; it wasn’t very good,” Fowler said. “Missing cuts is not fun and definitely not what’s planned. It’s heading in the right direction.
“Swing-wise, everything is fundamentals. Everything is so small. Out here, at the highest level, if you are off just a little bit, especially in a major, it picks you apart.”
Fisher, 35, who was remarkably accurate on Thursday, hitting all but two fairways and two greens in his 66, is 0-for-22 in major tries and didn’t play in this season’s first two because he’s ranked 101st in the world.
He has five European Tour victories and nearly scored a huge win in 2009 when he lost to countryman Paul Casey in the WGC-Accenture Match Play final.
Seeing others, including two Europeans this year, seize their first majors has given him hope.
“The variety of good golfers is amazing,” Fisher said. “It feels like anyone can turn up on any given day, pick it up and win. . . . There are a lot of youngsters out there that aren’t scared to go out to play. It’s pretty wide open.“
After a wayward drive and a poor layup that nearly carried into the water, Mickelson found himself mostly stymied by a stone bridge for his third shot on Baltusrol Golf Club’s 18th hole.
The left-hander had only a half-swing, and when he made contact the ball shot straight right as if he’d hit a shocking cold shank. Mickelson eventually made bogey on the par-5 hole he birdied to win the 2005 PGA.
Starting on the 10th hole for the first round of the PGA Championship on Thursday, it was that ugly for Mickelson in his first competition since his tremendous Sunday duel with Henrik Stenson in the British Open.
Whatever magic he had at Troon escaped him, but Mickelson showed steely resilience. He birdied three of his last seven holes to shoot 1-over-par 71. He wasn’t in the thick of the hunt, sitting six shots behind leader Jimmy Walker, but he wasn’t out of it either.
“Could have been terrible,” Mickelson said. “I was 4 over through 11 holes [and] I’m playing a very difficult hole No. 3 (par-4, 500 yards), which is usually the hardest hole out there. I was able to make birdie there [from 12 feet]. That was a big birdie.”
Of why he struggled so much early on Mickelson cited not having his usual routine of playing in a tournament the week before a major.
“Just quick at the top [of the swing],” Mickelson explained. “Just lost focus. Just antsy, a little jumpy, just lost rhythm and made some terrible swings. There’s no real answer. The game has been very easy and the first 11 holes was very hard.”
At least Mickelson made his way back to something respectable. In the same group, Rory McIlroy could not do the same. The four-time major winner couldn’t make a birdie along with suffering four bogeys with a score of 74. He’ll be fighting to make the cut in the second round.
“Driving the ball as well as I have, ever. Iron play feels good,” McIlroy said. “Just when I get on the greens, it’s just a different story.”
He needed 35 putts — an awful number that, according to tournament statistics, made him lose 3.8 strokes to the field on the greens.
Coming back from illness and with only one round of practice ever at Baltusrol, Day did just fine. He opened with a 68 that could have been far better had he holed more putts. His irons were so good Day gave himself plenty of looks at birdie, but the defending PGA champ could make only three.
“I’m very excited about how I hit it today,” Day said. “I hit a lot of good, quality shots. Hasn’t been like that lately. To be able to go out there and hit it exactly where I’m going and see the shot and what I need to do and actually execute is exciting for me. Really positive stuff going into the next three rounds.”
Day said it was “kind of a blessing” to not have practiced too much in the hot, sticky weather.
With Day’s length, there are few able to play the 554-yard 18th the way he did, though he couldn’t make a birdie. Day covered the distance with two 3-iron shots, ended up in a greenside bunker, and couldn’t convert the subsequent birdie try from 10 feet.
Day also missed birdie putts of 6, 12 and 13 feet on his front nine.
Andrew “Beef” Johnston birdied his final hole to shoot 70. In a stretch from 10 through 15 he didn’t make a par, going bogey-birdie-bogey-birdie-birdie-bogey.
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