By Andrew Both
FARMINGDALE, N.Y. (Reuters) – Defending champion Brooks Koepka made an inspired start at the PGA Championship with a dominant display that for several hours seemed destined to give him a big lead after the first round on Thursday.
Koepka made the gargantuan, rain-softened Bethpage Black layout look easy with a seven-under-par 63 that matched the second lowest round in any major championship.
But an inspired Danny Lee almost caught Koepka in the afternoon, the South Korean-born, American-based citizen of New Zealand finishing in style with birdies at the final two holes for a 64.
The two frontrunners had a handy cushion over their nearest pursuer, Englishman Tommy Fleetwood on 67.
Tiger Woods, in his first competitive round since winning the Masters a month ago, putted poorly for a 72 in the company of Koepka.
Bethpage’s fairways are lined with lush, rain-fuelled rough, and Koepka said keeping his ball in the short grass had been key to his score.
“If you hit fairways you’re going to be able to hit greens and get the ball close to the hole,” he said.
“So you can definitely shoot a number. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw another good score in the afternoon.”
Prophetic words indeed, as Lee showed, his words almost a carbon-copy of Koepka’s.
“Whenever I hit it on the fairway I gave it a good look for birdie and made those putts today,” said the world number 119.
If Lee milked every drop out of his round, Koepka left a bit of money on the table.
“I parred two par-fives and missed about a five-footer on number 11 so it could’ve been a hell of a round,” he said.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take it every day but just need to clean a few things up.
The three-times major champion, who teed off at the 10th hole, bookended his round with monster birdies, a 40-footer at his first and a 33-footer at his last.
Woods was impressed with his playing companion.
“I think that was probably the highest score he could have shot today,” Woods said. “He left a few out there.”
Woods did well to put a disappointing start behind him but was undone by a trio of late bogeys.
The four-times champion had a trio of three-putts and his 72 included two double-bogeys, the first one coming right off the bat at his opening hole.
“It wasn’t as clean as I’d like to have it for sure. Didn’t get off to a very good start,” said the 15-times major champion.
“Then found my way back around. Got it back under par for the day, and let a couple slip away with a couple bad putts and a couple mistakes at the end.”
Koepka, who finished a shot behind Woods at the Masters, is in no mood to let that happen again.
“It was great that Tiger won Augusta but we’re at a new week now,” he said.
“Obviously, everybody in New York is cheering for him. You’ve just got to keep battling and find a way through it.
“This golf course is brutal. You’ve got to drive it straight. That was one of the best rounds I’ve played probably as a professional.”
(Additional reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Toby Davis and Ed Osmond)