With Round 1 of the 2021 PGA Championship behind us, one thing that is increasingly clear about Kiawah Island is it’s not for the faint of heart. The Ocean Course swallowed up some of the sport’s best in the opening round of action. Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy — the betting favorites entering the day — were among them. Canadian Corey Conners was decidedly not.
Conners posted an opening-round 5-under 67 to pace the field by two strokes. He leads a loaded T2 perch on the leaderboard that features six different men at 3 under. Then there’s a cadre of contenders lurking at T8, where at 2 under even more star power abounds. Reigning champion Collin Morikawa sits here ready to pounce after an opening-round 70. So, too, does 2005 PGA Championship winner Phil Mickelson.
As for the rest of the leaderboard, here’s a rundown from the first day of action at Kiawah Island.
1. Corey Conners (-5): A strong start to the day for Conners never really trailed off. He opened with three birdies through seven and overcame a bogey on No. 9 by turning in a clean back nine featuring birdies on 11, 15 and 16 without any bogeys. He was remarkable tee to green and cleaned up nicely with the putter to boot. Conners’ best-career finish at a major came earlier this spring with a T8 at the Masters, and he showed Thursday — weathering windy and challenging conditions — that he’s capable of contending into the weekend. It is his best position on the leaderboard after any round at a major in which he’s appeared, topping his previous best of T6 earlier this year at the Masters.
T2. Brooks Koepka, Viktor Hovland, Keegan Bradley, Aaron Wise, Sam Horsfield, Cam Davis (-3): How Koepka was able to end Round 1 squarely in contention is impressive for two reasons. The first, and most obvious, is that he’s physically not right. He had knee surgery on March 16. Since then, he’s played in only the Masters and the AT&T Byron Nelson, missing the cut in each. The second is because of how he started the day, double-bogeying the par-4 10th. He played the remaining eight holes at 2 under and then posted a bogey-free second-nine with three birdies. He’s still favoring the knee, as you can see when he bends, but he hit the ball well and led the field in strokes gained on approach.
The length of the Ocean Course is candy for great ball-strikers like Hovland, who with his opening-round 69 tied for the field lead in greens in regulation. He had only one bogey on the round. Bradley’s rise to the top Thursday was no surprise, as he entered the day as one of the sneaky hot golfers on the tour after finishing second at the Valspar at T4 at the Zurich Classic. He leads the field in strokes gained tee to green and in greens in regulation. It was an impressive all-around outing and on a course that requires precision, he had it in spades.
T8. Collin Morikawa, Phil Mickelson, Sungjae Im and five others (-2): Reigning PGA Championship winner Morikawa missed plenty of shots in his opening defense of his championship Thursday, posting three bogeys — two on the front and another on the back. But he made huge putts to give himself chances to post scores and led the field in driving accuracy to make up for it with six birdies. Mickelson, the 2005 champion, grinded out a similar round anchored by quality driving with a 32 coming home. Pretty gutty finish after some real adversity early in which he bogeyed Nos. 4, 5 and 6.
T16. Rickie Fowler, Will Zalatoris and 13 others (-1): After a rocky year for Fowler, he’s playing this week on a special exemption — and making the most of it. He said after his round that playing money games against Michael Jordan have helped fuel him, and added he’s starting to feel “pretty darn good.” He’s done a lot of tweaking to his game of late — we can’t gloss over missed cuts this month at the Wells Fargo and Byron Nelson — but he looked strong in Round 1. More “go play golf” and less “play golf swing,” as he put it Thursday, did him well.
T31. Bryson DeChambeau, Jon Rahm and 7 others (E): A sluggish start to the day turned into a strong finish as DeChambeau converted an opening-nine 2-over 38 into an even-par 70. He had a stretch with four consecutive bogeys from 13-16 where it appeared he was actively ejecting, but he rallied by keeping his driver in play and hitting good shots. Spieth was a little more consistent with a 70 that could easily have been in the red if not for a few putts that lipped out. Rahm played a steady round with a pair of birdies and bogeys. He led the field in driving distance and gained 1.75 strokes on the field tee to green.
T40. Hideki Matsuyama, Jordan Spieth, Patrick Cantlay and 20 others (+1): This course is a ball-strikers dream for players like Matsuyama, the 2021 Masters champion. He wasn’t quite able to take advantage, however, as his putter held him back including a three-putt on 18. Same for Spieth, though he played the final three holes at even-par, an accomplishment unto itself. As for Cantlay, Thursday he became the first player since Kenny Knox in 1991 with multiple eagles in the opening round of a PGA Championship.
T78. Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas and 19 others (+3): Playing together in a threesome with Koepka on Thursday, both McIlroy and Thomas struggled to find any rhythm. McIlroy struggled with the putter in particular and discovered how unforgiving the course can be with a few tricky lies with no relief. Thomas struggled off the tee, where he lost strokes to the field. Both entered Thursday 1-2 atop the betting board to win this week and while a rough first day is not a disqualifier, they’re in a precarious position and need strong showings Friday to be here for the weekend.