Graeme McDowell found a US Open-like course set-up in posting a level par 70 on the opening day of the PGA Championship at Bethpage Park.
McDowell was in the clubhouse with three birdies and an equal number of bogeys minutes before defending champ, Brooks Koepka made a mockery of the Black Course ‘warning sign’ in storming to a four-shot lead with a seven-under par 63.
Koepka, with Portrush caddy, Ricky Elliott continuing to call the shots, became the first player on the occasion of the 101st PGA Championship to have ever posted back-to-back 63s in the event after capturing a third Major victory last August with the same final round score at Bellerive in suburban St. Louis.
McDowell had finished T18th in the 2009 US Open at Bethpage a year before winning at Pebble Beach but while Pebble can feel very ‘linksy’, there’s no such feel around the feared Black Course on New York’s Long Island.
“Bethpage is a US Open setup and if you pinched the fairways in maybe another three feet, four feet on each side, you’d have a US Open,” McDowell said.
“That’s the only difference. They’re probably slightly more generous than the USGA would have them, but only very, very slightly.
“It’s an intimidating test off the tee. You have to drive the eyes out of it. The guy who wins this week, he’ll be top-10 in total driving. Without a doubt.
“You just can’t – unless you’re up there in total driving this week, you’re not going to have a chance to compete, simple. And I can only imagine that Brooks (Koepka) is driving the ball extremely well to be doing what he’s doing today.”
McDowell capped his round with birdies at the fifth and 13th before holing a 12-footer for birdie on 17, with bogeys coming at 11, 15 and courtesy of a three-putt at the last.
“I was a little hesitant about the course and the setup, but I was pretty happy when I saw it yesterday, how thick the rough was and I felt like no one can play the course if they’re missing fairways,” McDowell added.
“I like the way that kind of looked for me so all in all, I would have taken par coming in here.”
Meanwhile, Shane Lowry posted a bitterly disappointing five-over par 75 on the par-70 Black course layout in a round that included two birdies but seven sour-tasting bogeys.
The Offaly golfer had posted two bogeys over his closing three holes in the 2018 PGA Championship, the then last major of last year, and this time around he also ended the opening round with two bogeys over the last three.
Lowry, who was out in the third group of the day from the very distant 10th tee and unlike Tiger Woods, who also began from the 10th with a double-bogey and Francesco Molinari, who played a provisional, managed to split the fairway with a 300-yard effort. Minutes later, Lowry walked off with a starting par.
He snatched a first birdie in two-putting the par-5 13th that Lowry was playing as his fourth before getting onto the bogey train with dropped shots at his sixth, seventh and ninth holes to make the turn at two-over.
Lowry slumped to five-over with further bogeys at his 12th and 14th holes ahead of sandwiching a second birdie when he landed his second shot at the par-4 sixth, his 15th hole, to get back to three-over. Unfortunately the joy was short-lived with further bogeys at 16 and 18 with Lowry left with much work to do if he’s to make the weekend cut.
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