On a course built to resemble the great courses of Ireland such as Royal Portrush or Ballybunion, it was Ulsterman Darren Clarke who set the early pace in the opening round of the 86th US PGA Championship with a seven under par 65 at Whistling Straits.
On a superb opening morning for European Tour Members in the final Major Championship of the season, Clarke leads by one from World Number Two and the current leader of the Volvo Order of Merit, Ernie Els of South Africa, and 1997 Open Champion Justin Leonard of America.
World Number Three Vijay Singh of Fiji, like Els an Honorary Member of The European Tour, is a shot further back after an opening 67 while another Irishman, Padraig Harrington opened his account with a four under par 68.
When Herbert V Kohler Jr acquired the piece of land adjacent to Lake Michigan in 1995 he said to course designer Pete Dye, “I want to strive for something like Royal Portrush and Ballybunion. Make it as close to that as you can.”
How close a resemblance the Dye creation bears to Royal Portrush is open to debate but the course was clearly to Clarke’s liking on the opening day. With the wind coming from the East rather than the predicted North, the course was playing slightly easier than during practice and Clarke took full advantage.
Four birdies in his opening four holes got Clarke off to the perfect start and when he birdied the seventh and eighth holes he was racing ahead at six under par. A dropped shot on the ninth momentarily halted the momentum but then Clarke followed that with another brace of birdies immediately after the turn too get to seven under par. A bogey on the 13th was followed by a birdie on the next hole and four pars to finish completed an excellent opening day.
“I got off to a great start and just kept going,” said Clarke, reunited with his old caddie Billy Foster after an 18 month separation. “I hit the ball well all day, maybe hit two bad shots, but managed to hole some putts. They moved a few tees up for us but the wind lay down for us a bit in the middle of the round so the course was not as testing in practice. But there is a long way to go.”
Els leads the chase in determined mood having narrowly missed out in all three previous Majors this season. Second to Phil Mickelson in the Masters Tournament when the American birdied the last, Els was again in contention in the US Open until falling away in the final round to finish joint ninth. In the Open Championship at Royal Troon he lost out in a play-off to Todd Hamilton and the US PGA offers the final opportunity to add to his two US Open and one Open Championship title.
“The wind changed today and they made some changes which made the course a little easier,” said Els after a round of seven birdies and just the one dropped shot. In the practice rounds I thought are we going to make par but the wind made it a bit easier.”
Els took two weeks off after the Open and after shaking out any rust last week, Els declared he was feeling good. “I feel fresh, especially after a 66. This is my last chance for a Major this year so see how it goes. Got to keep knocking on the door and see how I finish.”
Singh, who like Els can knock Tiger Woods from his position as World Number One this week, picked up six birdies with just one bogey as he seeks to add a second US PGA title to his 1998 triumph.
When Harrington double bogeyed the 15th he was lying two over par through his opening six holes but birdies at the 16th, 18th and first holes took him under par before he finished with a flourish with three successive birdies for an opening 68 and a remarkable turnaround.
Other European Tour Members to finish under par among the early finishers included England’s Brian Davis, who posted a two under par 70 and Australian Adam Scott, 71.