A superb opening day for European Tour Members at Whistling Straits saw Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke leading the 86th US PGA Championship after a brilliant opening 65, seven under par, one stroke clear of World Number Two Ernie Els and Justin Leonard with other European Tour Members Vijay Singh and Luke Donald a further shot back on a star-studded leaderboard in Kohler, Wisconsin.
Clarke picked up nine birdies in total as he made his best start to a Major Championship to lie one ahead of World Number Two and the current leader of the Volvo Order of Merit, Els of South Africa, and 1997 Open Champion Leonard of America.
World Number Three Singh of Fiji, like Els an Honorary Member of The European Tour, is a shot further back after an opening 67 alongside England’s Donald, winner of the Scandinavian Masters by Carlsberg earlier this month, 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 Ulsterman 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.
Donald, making a late bid to make the European Team for The 35th Ryder Cup Matches at Oakland Hills next month, did his chances of a place on Bernhard Langer’s team no harm with a opening 67 to lie just two shots off the pace.
Donald made a great start with three successive birdies and, after dropping shots at the fourth and seventh holes, got back on the birdie trail with four in a row from the eighth to move to five under par. He briefly moved to six under and within a stroke of the lead with an eighth birdie of the round on the 14th but found trouble on the next hole to fall back to five under, where he finished.
“I felt very comfortable,” said Donald. “I hit a lot of good shots, especially coming down the last few holes. I made my share of putts, particularly on the front nine so I’ve got to be happy. Hit the ball well and took advantage of my chances.”
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.
Compatriot Paul McGinley is another player involved in the sprint to the line for the Ryder Cup team and he remains in the hunt with an impressive opening 69, three under par.
“I’m very pleased,” said McGinley, runner up last week in the KLM Open. “The wind changed direction from practice which unnerved me a little as I was not sure where I was going. Today was similar to Irish conditions with the wind and the course is not dissimilar to the modern links courses we play at home.”
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 and the Volvo PGA Champion Scott Drummond of Scotland, also shooting a 71.