ST. LOUIS — The first major tournament in the state of Missouri since 1992 started with a Tiger and ended with a ... Jayhawk?
Gary Woodland, a three-time PGA Tour winner and former University of Kansas standout, stepped into what he called "enemy territory" on Thursday at Bellerive Country Club and left with the lead at the 100th PGA Championship.
With close to 100 family and friends on hand from his hometown of Topeka, Woodland caught some razzing from Mizzou fans during his afternoon round in the sweltering heat but savored the last laugh while shooting 6-under 64. Woodland, who's never finished in the top 10 at a major, holds a one-stroke lead over Rickie Fowler and leads Brandon Stone and Zach Johnson by two strokes.
"There's a lot of bad blood there between Kansas and Missouri," Woodland said. "I heard a lot of stuff that actually made me laugh and chuckle, but it's all in fun. I'm just happy and excited to be as close to home as I'll ever be."
Long before Woodland stepped to the first tee, the day's biggest crowds came out early for the field's most super of super groups cleverly assigned by the PGA of America for the opening rounds of its milestone championship. The triumvirate of Tiger Woods, Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy didn't disappoint the sweat-drenched galleries that followed their every move through five hours around Bellerive.
Making his first appearance at the PGA in three years, Woods turned back the clock — not necessarily in Thursday's first round but during Tuesday's championship dinner. In the gathering of past winners of golf's fourth major, defending champion Thomas was asked to pick some fellow players to talk to the room about their PGA experiences. Woods, his frequent playing partner in Jupiter, Fla., drew the assignment.
The 14-time major champion chose the 2000 PGA Championship as his subject, noting that on his way to the Wanamaker Trophy at Valhalla, Woods played a round with the legendary Jack Nicklaus, one generation's king and his rightful successor.
"That was (Nicklaus') last PGA, and he was telling me the story that he played with Gene Sarazen in his last PGA," Woods said Thursday after salvaging a disastrous start on Bellerive's back nine. "It's interesting what this game of golf can do, how we can basically last for so many different generations."
The story doesn't end there. In the clubhouse that year in Louisville, Ky., watching Woods drain an epic birdie putt on the final hole of regulation was 7-year-old Thomas, the son of a PGA club pro, and now one of the game's elite young talents.
Their worlds collided again Thursday as fans flocked to watch Woods play his first competitive round of golf in St. Louis.
"It was pretty wild out there for a Thursday," Thomas said.
Thomas, trying to become the first back-to-back PGA champion since Woods, came into the clubhouse 1-under par on a course still recovering from the week's extreme weather while Woods and McIlroy gladly took their even scores.
"I was able to grind out a score today," Woods said.
For all the concerns that Bellerive's soft and sticky greens would yield an abundance of low scores and offer few challenges for the world's best players, the course held its own through the first day of action. Among the 152 players in the field, only one shot a bogey-free round, Argentina's Emiliano Grillo, whose 1-under 69 put him in a 15-way tie for 33rd. The day's 47 rounds of under-par scores came well short of the PGA's first-round record of 60 set in 2006 at Medinah Country Club.
"The (greens) are bumpy, for sure," Woods said. "They're quicker than they were on the practice rounds. ... But they're still on the slower side than what we normally play week in and week out. The shorter putts are a little more interesting because they're a little chewed up."
"Greens are soft, but it's going to be like that for the rest of the week, I feel like," said Dustin Johnson, the world's No. 1-ranked player after a 3-under 67.
In a six-birdie round, Fowler hit 16 of 18 greens in regulation, and on one he didn't he rolled in a 32-foot putt from the fringe on the par-4 seventh. His 65 was his lowest round in nine PGA Championships and tied for his second-lowest round of the year. Widely considered the best American player who hasn't won a major, Fowler could shed that label with three more strong days on the course.
"I'm definitely happy but Thursday you can't go win the golf tournament," he said.
Playing four groups behind Fowler, the first few holes for the Woods-McIlroy-Thomas super group were a microcosm of the last few years: Woods had to fight back from his self-inflicted mistakes while his younger peers coolly breezed through the conditions. After sending his opening tee shot on No. 10 into the rough, Woods settled for bogey when he left his first putt short. Things got worse on the par-4 11th hole when Woods' second shot dropped into a pond guarding the front side of the green. After the one-shot penalty he needed two putts to escape with a double bogey.
Woods recovered with a birdie on 12 but sent another tee shot into the rough on 15. As the crowd groaned, Woods grimaced, feigned snapping his driver in half then found his ball beyond the ropes and in the gallery under a stretch of trees. With a horde of fans at his back, Woods blasted out of the rough, curling the ball 144 yards beyond the trees but back into the rough. This time, he escaped with a 70-yard beauty onto the green and salvaged par with a short putt.
Woods could later laugh about the adventurous hole.
"That wasn't very good, was it?" he said. "I pulled a tee shot, and the wispy stuff right behind the ball grabbed my shaft and turned it down. ... The canopy was pretty high. So I tried to play a shot and pulled it off and made a putt."
Woods got another roar from the gallery on No. 18 when he stuck his approach shot just four feet from the hole, then finished with a much-needed birdie. He played mistake-free on his back nine, hitting eight greens in regulation with a birdie on the par-4 No. 8.
With the sun blazing on the course during the afternoon round, Woodland opened with a bogey then unleashed the best putting performance of his career, making five birdies during a seven-hole stretch on the back nine. He made putts of 22, 23 and 44 feet.
There's plenty of golf to play, but for one of the sport's most ferocious drivers, a remarkable day on the much-discussed greens was enough to carry him to the lead.