McIlroy falters on Kiawah Island return as Koepka sets early paceon May 20, 2021 at 6:31 pm

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Rory McIlroy falters on his return to Kiawah Island as Brooks Koepka is among those to set the early pace at the US PGA Championship.

Rory McIlroy
-5 C Conners (Can); -3 B Koepka (US), K Bradley (US), V Hovland (Nor), A Wise (US), S Horsfield (Eng), C Davis (Aus); -2 C Morikawa (US), M Laird (Sco), C Tringale (US)
Selected others: -1 P Casey (Eng), P Harrington (Ire), R Fowler (US), T Hatton (Eng), T Lewis (Eng); Level B DeChambeau (US), J Rose (Eng); +1 L Westwood (Eng), J Spieth (US); +3 R McIlroy (NI)

McIlroy won the last time the event was staged at the South Carolina venue in 2012 but signed for a three-over 75.

Canadian Conners edged clear at the top with an impressive five-under-par 67.

England’s Sam Horsfield and former world number one Brooks Koepka are part of a six-strong chasing pack who sit two off the 29-year-old’s early pace.

Norway’s Viktor Hovland, Australia’s Cam Davis and Americans Keegan Bradley and Aaron Wise are also at three under.

Scotland’s Martin Laird, one of the early starters, held top spot heading to the 17th tee but carded successive bogeys and sits one further back.

Defending champion Collin Morikawa looked set to join the group on three under but bogeyed his final hole to also finish at two under on a breezy opening day.

Conners’ best major finish before this year was joint 64th at the 2019 PGA Championship, but he finished in a share of eighth at the Masters last month and now leads at Kiawah Island.

The world number 39 was three under through seven and he atoned for his only bogey of the day at nine with a birdie at 11 and then emerged from the group gathered at three under par with successive birdies on the 15th and 16th holes.

Horsfield, making his debut at the tournament, is within touching distance after a 69 that featured five birdies and two bogeys.

“To be playing well in a major is fun, it’s a new thing for me, to play against the best guys in the world is the best thing you can do,” said the 24-year-old, who also watched a birdie putt on the last lip out.

Alongside the Englishman is Koepka, who said before the tournament he was up to six months away from full fitness following surgery on 16 March to deal with a knee cap dislocation and ligament damage.

That appeared to ring true as the four-time major champion made a double-bogey start, but he immediately pulled one of those shots back and further birdies either side of a bogey saw the American hit the turn at level par.

The 2018 and 2019 winner added three birdies on his back nine to join 23-year-old Hovland, who cancelled out an opening bogey with a birdie on the second before adding three more in a terrific round, in the early clubhouse lead.

Another former champion Bradley claimed his only major at the PGA Championship a decade ago and had just one bogey on a card that included four birdies as he signed for a 69.

Sam Horsfield

British contingent in contention

Scotland’s Laird strung together four successive birdies to lead at four under par with two to play, but back-to-back bogeys saw the 38-year-old head into the clubhouse at two under.

Paul Casey was also piecing together a promising round as he moved to three under but the Englishman was pegged back by a bogey-bogey finish to end the day one under par.

“I’d have taken one under at the start of the day because this is one of the most difficult golf courses I have ever played. It has my respect,” said Casey.

“They are one of the best [putting] surfaces we have experienced in major championship golf, they are incredibly true. The ball does not deviate, they barely leave a mark.”

Compatriot Tyrrell Hatton birdied his final hole, the ninth, to also finish at one under after a round that included four birdies and three bogeys, alongside Tom Lewis.

Lee Westwood would have joined them but for a double bogey on the notoriously tricky 223-yard par three 17th, which left the 48-year-old at one over instead.

Justin Rose had a costly double bogey at 15, his only dropped shots of the day, to finish at level par, while Ian Poulter was two under through seven before a run of five dropped shots in five holes eventually saw the Englishman sign for a two-over 74.

Tommy Fleetwood had a triple bogey on the 15th and a bogey-bogey finish as he ended four over.

McIlroy battles to stay in hunt

Northern Ireland’s McIlroy started with a bogey at the 10th after leaking his opening drive into water but followed that with successive birdies, and was unlucky to see an eagle putt lip out. He hit the turn at level par after another dropped shot on the 608-yard par-five 16th.

McIlroy won here the last time Kiawah Island hosted the event but said he did not feel that would give him an advantage nine years on.

He did arrive in South Carolina as the favourite, however, after ending a 19-month winless streak with victory at Quail Hollow two weeks ago and having seemingly corrected his swing troubles after recruiting coach Pete Cowen.

Back-to-back bogeys followed after the turn and another at five, his 14th, saw the 32-year-old slide to three over par before sinking a 12-foot birdie putt on the next.

But there was further trouble for McIlroy when his drive on the par-five sixth found a tuft of long grass in one of the wasteland areas to the left and that resulted in another dropped shot as he signed for a 75.

Bryson DeChambeau

Big-hitting US Open champion Bryson DeChambeau, who said he planned to “unleash the beast” in a bid to tame the longest course in major championship history, stuttered to the turn with four successive bogeys after edging to two under through three holes.

The world number five traded a birdie and a bogey after the turn but made two birdies on his way in to post a level-par 72.

Jordan Spieth needs the PGA Championship to become just the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam by winning all four majors.

The American carded an opening one-over 73 in which he bogeyed the 18th.

None of the world’s top three broke par, with Dustin Johnson finishing four over, Jon Rahm level par and Justin Thomas three over.

Meanwhile, Europe Ryder Cup captain Padraig Harrington, who teamed up with Paul McGinley to win the 1997 World Cup for Ireland at this venue, kept himself in the mix with an eagle at 11 on his way to a one-under-par 71.

Phil Mickelson, who at the age of 50 is a year older than 2008 winner Harrington, also remains in contention after an entertaining 70 that included six birdies and four bogeys.

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