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Entertainment Playing with an eclectic group, the leader makes a scorching start

TOWN AND COUNTRY, Mo. — Gary Woodland, Kevin Kisner and Sergio Garcia started out as the palate cleanser between courses of a gourmet meal offered up to fans Friday morning at Bellerive Country Club.

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Playing with an eclectic group, the leader makes a scorching start play

Playing with an eclectic group, the leader makes a scorching start

(NY Times)

They teed off directly behind the group composed of this year’s three major winners — Patrick Reed, Brooks Koepka and Francesco Molinari — and right in front of a threesome that included Jordan Spieth, who would complete a career Grand Slam with a victory here at the 100th PGA Championship.

The PGA of America, which operates the tournament, tried so hard to spice up certain groups, only to discover surprising power in a random mix. After a weather-suspended second round, Woodland had the lead at 10-under par, the lowest 36-hole total in tournament history. He has won three times in nearly a decade on the PGA Tour and never finished in the top 10 at a major. One stroke back in second place was Kisner, a two-time PGA Tour winner who finished tied for second at last month’s British Open.

They were amid the half of the field — 78 players — that finished before a series of electrical storms swept through the area in the afternoon. Woodland, the first-round leader, carded a 4-under 66 to hold off Kisner, who posted a 64. Garcia, the 2017 Masters champion, shot a 71.

Kisner said he was motivated by Woodland’s play to elevate his own. “I think every time that you see guys playing well it kind of drags other guys in the group along,” he said.

That’s funny, Woodland said, because for the first nine holes Friday he was trying his best to keep up with Kisner, who covered those holes in 29 strokes. Kisner came to his last hole, the 438-yard par-4 ninth, needing a birdie to surpass the tournament record of 63. But he took three shots to reach the green, then two-putted from 23 feet for a bogey, the only blemish on his scorecard.

Koepka, the winner of the last two U.S. Opens, also had a chance to break the record, set by Bruce Crampton in the second round of the 1975 PGA Championship and matched by 13 others before this week.

Koepka also finished at the ninth hole, and after striping a 318-yard drive, he stuck his approach to 20 feet, only to miss the putt that would have given him a 62.

“I really thought I made it,” said Koepka, who was so focused on the putt, he had no idea he was chasing the record. “I didn’t even think of it,” he said, until his caddie informed him as they were walking off the ninth green.

Charl Schwartzel, the 2011 Masters champion, also posted a 63, vaulting into a tie for fourth at 7-under, a stroke behind third-place Koepka. Schwartzel started at No. 1 and played alongside Patrick Cantlay and Thorbjorn Olesen in conditions as peaceful as possible, considering that Town and Country’s population of 11,113 seemed to swell to two or three times that size on the 200-acre Bellerive property.

“I don’t think I’ve seen so many people at a golf tournament,” said Schwartzel, who had eight birdies and one bogey.

The made-for-TV threesomes, including the megawatt trio of Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and defending champion Justin Thomas, found themselves chasing a pair of low-profile competitors.

When play was suspended Friday, Woods, the 14-time major winner who is competing in his first PGA Championship since 2015, had birdied three of his seven holes to move to 3-under. Thomas was under for the day and 2-under for the tournament while McIlroy was at even par, which was the projected cut line.

Woods, McIlroy and Thomas are former world No. 1s, with 19 major victories among them. Neither Woodland nor Kisner is ranked in the world top 25; Kisner is 27th, 17 spots ahead of Woodland.

“I thought our group had plenty of firepower,” Kisner said with a sparkle in his eye.

Kisner and Woodland are both 34 and married, with toddlers. The comparisons end there. Woodland is one of the tour’s longer hitters. His 300-plus-yard drives have left Kisner wondering how he would play if he possessed Woodland’s power.

“If I could only hit as far as he could, it would be a different game,” Kisner mused.

At 7,317 yards, Bellerive is a beast of a layout, with two 500-yard par-4s and a 610-yard par-5. But it is free of contrivances. Because of several challenges presented the last few months by Mother Nature, the course is playing soft, which negates the big hitters’ advantage. Also, the greens are receptive, allowing the shorter hitters like Kisner to take aim at the pin with a 4-iron and land the ball as softly as Woodland can with his 7-iron.

“If they were firm,” Kisner said, referring to the greens, “I don’t think I would have a chance.”

The course’s softness bothers master technicians like Spieth, who carded a 66 to move to 3-under. “You get away with more, like you don’t have to be as precise,” he said. “That’s frustrating in a major championship.”

The leaderboard suggests the course favors no single player but smiles on everyone whose game is major-ready.

“All I know,” Kisner said, “is if I hit it in the fairway and hit it on the green and make the putt, I’m probably going to have a good shot at winning.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Karen Crouse © 2018 The New York Times

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