Corey Conners seized the first-round lead at the 103rd PGA Championship as Brooks Koepka defied expectations to get into contention at Kiawah Island.
Conners fired a five-under 67 to claim a two-shot lead over the field, with Koepka leading the chasing pack along with England’s Sam Horsfield, Viktor Hovland and former champion Keegan Bradley, but it was a tough first day for pre-tournament favourite Rory McIlroy.
Despite renewed confidence gained from his win at the Wells Fargo Championship earlier this month, McIlroy made a mess of the par-fives on the Ocean Course and bogeyed three of the four long holes in a 75, the same score as playing-partner and world No 2, Justin Thomas.
But the third member of their group was flying high as Koepka recovered from a woeful first hole that left him “feeling like an idiot”, a double-bogey six at the 10th followed by a selection of the brilliance that landed him the Wanamaker Trophy in 2018 and 2019.
Birdies at 11 and 13 repaired the damage of his scrappy start, thinning his second from a sandy waste area into a mound of thick fescue grass a few yards in front of him, forcing him to stab his third back into the fairway.
After covering the back nine in an even 36, Koepka holed from 25 feet for birdie at the fourth to start a run of three birdies in four holes before parring in to match the early clubhouse target set by Bradley, with Hovland also in the house on three under with his four-birdie opener.
But they were later surpassed by the in-form Conners, who enjoyed a second consecutive top-10 finish at the Masters in April and continued his impressive major form with the standout round of the late starters on day one.
The Canadian birdied three of the first seven holes before giving one back when he overshot the green with his approach to the ninth, and he made good fours at both par-fives on the back nine either side of a bonus birdie at the 15th, where he rattled in a huge 55-foot putt from just off the green.
“I’d say it’s impossible to be stress-free around this golf course,” said the 29-year-old. “You can’t fall asleep out there on any holes. It’s very challenging, but I was fortunate to have a good day and made it as least stressful as possible on myself.
“I hit a lot of really good shots and holed some nice putts early in the round, and that really helped boost the confidence. You know, I played with a lot of freedom.
“It was a really special round, I did a lot of things really, really well. It’s nice to see some mid-range birdie putts fall in the hole early, and I felt like I rolled it really well for the rest of the round. A lot of putts had chances to go in and I made some nice saves, as well.”
Horsfield, twice a winner on the European Tour’s UK Swing last year, celebrated his PGA Championship debut with his best round in a major, carding five birdies and coming agonisingly close to another at the last, lipping out from 12 feet.
But the 24-year-old, mentored as a youngster by Ian Poulter at Woburn, was not letting that sour his encouraging day, particularly as he began the year sidelined by a back injury that kept him out of action for four months, and he credited his work with coach Sean Foley for getting his swing back in shape.
“I tore my disc in my back at the end of last year, so that put me out for four months and then I started working with Foles,” said Horsfield. “We just started working on staying tall, behind the ball and just giving it a good rip.
“I just try to keep my head down, I don’t want to get thinking I’m better than what I am or whatever. Just head down, work every day and just grind, and obviously I’m really, really happy with how everything’s going.
“I’ve been playing really well this year and it was nice to get out there today. Played well, felt really comfortable and put a good score up on the board.”
Australian Cam Davis also got round in 69 just before sunset, while defending champion Collin Morikawa was delighted with his opening 70 that was matched by five-time major winner Phil Mickelson and Scotland’s Martin Laird, who made four straight birdies on the back nine to get to four under before dropping shots at 17 and 18.
Ryder Cup captain Padraig Harrington was another veteran to impress as he fired a 71 to match the early efforts of Tyrrell Hatton, Paul Casey, Tom Lewis and Rickie Fowler, who made a good job of justifying his special invite having slumped to 128th in the world rankings after a wretched run of form.
But while 30 players ended the day in red numbers, McIlroy, Thomas and world No 1 Dustin Johnson will need to regroup on Friday to make sure of qualifying for the weekend.
McIlroy did well to scramble a bogey after carving his opening drive into a hazard at the 10th, and he soon got under the card with birdies at 11 and 13 only to play a poor lay-up at the long 16th and run up the first of his three sixes.
The two-time winner dropped three shots in five holes on the front nine, and he also bogeyed the seventh to slip to three over along with Thomas, while Johnson was one shot further back after a 76 capped by a double-bogey six at the last.
Open champion Shane Lowry bounced back from a double bogey on 17 to birdie the last and return a 73.