Rory Sprints, Tiger Hobbles, and the Sand Confounds on Day 1 at the PGA

Some major players and major problems that showed up in round 1 of the PGA


We’re nearly through one round at a PGA Championship that was bubbling over with anticipation and options for exciting storylines to play out at Southern Hills. Now that the shots are counting, some notes and takeaways from The Fried Egg team on those characters and their play on day one in Tulsa.

The Rory Report

By Meg Adkins

On the eve of the second men’s major of the year, Rory McIlroy and his family could be found hanging around the media center of all places. Carefree and relaxed, Rory watched his daughter run around the dining area and chatted with a few different members of the press. That stress-free mood continued into Thursday, when Rory recorded a 65 for his lowest first round major score since the 2011 US Open.

Looking sharp from the outset and finishing the back nine (his first nine) with a bogey-free 31, Rory made the turn with the lead. I joined up with the group on the 1st hole (their 10th) and made note of a few moments that kept the hot round going.

Line of aggression

The line Rory took off the tee on 5 was unreal to witness, but he left himself a difficult up and down for birdie. After going for it with a 3-iron from 250, he ended up short sided in a bunker left of the green. Failing to convert the birdie would have taken the wind out the sails after putting himself in position A from the tee. The 12-footer dropped, however, and gave him his 6th birdie of the day going into the difficult stretch of holes from 6 through 8.

Par 3 problems

It makes sense that two holes where driver was taken out of his hands are where Rory struggled. Going just long and leaving himself around eight feet for par led to a dropped shot at the 226-yard par-3 6th. A fantastic recovery shot from the left rough on the 7th gave him a stress-free par, which proved to be crucial as a terrible leave in the left bunker on the 8th yielded his second bogey in three holes. Playing that stretch in 2-over will have to change for the remainder of the tournament, but a scrambling save on 7 and avoiding posting anything worse than bogey stopped the bleeding.

A little luck on 9 

Rory let out a delayed “Fore!” as his drive pulled farther to the left on 9. Walking off the tee disgusted and looking at a potential tough lie and tree trouble, it seemed as if the round would end on a low note. His length, even on a mishit though, got him down far enough on the left side that he was left with only 105 yards in. His sand wedge played under the branches ran past the hole and gave him one more birdie chance for the day which he ran in confidently.

The letdown that felt like it was creeping closer and closer as the round wrapped up was held at bay with solid putting, scrambling, and a bit of luck. The tournament’s just begun, but Rory banishing his Thursday struggles for his first lead at a major since the 2014 Open at Royal Liverpool is about as great a start as anyone could hope for.

Sand Scandal

By Andy Johnson

On Thursday afternoon after Collin Morikawa hit a lackluster greenside bunker shot, David Duval remarked on the ESPN Telecast, “As impressive as the players are week in week out of greenside bunkers, it’s been that unimpressive so far. They really struggle with the texture of the sand.”

It may sound trivial to the casual sports fan but in round one, the greenside bunkers and their sand became a major story. Southern Hills doesn’t have the spec sand typically used on the PGA Tour and the players are struggling to get up and down. Each and every week, the PGA Tour strives to have uniform sand for its players. It’s a fine, bright white sand you have come to see weekly on TV. On Tour, if a new course to the schedule has a different sand, the Tour requests that they change it to the typical sand. It creates uniform, predictable conditions week in and week out for the best players in the world.

At Southern Hills, players are being confronted with a different type of sand. It’s firm and the ball sits up like the sand typically seen on Tour, but it’s more coarse and that’s causing issues. To make matters worse, Southern Hills bunkers are impactful, they are catching tons of shots as noted by Jake Nichols.

On top of the bunkers being harder to recover from, players are finding them almost 2x more often than a typical PGA Tour venue. It’s not a safe place to bail out – Southern Hills bunkers are inflicting a penalty on players. Bunkers as real hazards, how novel!

Instead of coddling players with uniformity, it would be nice to see the Tour embrace different locales having different conditions, including bunker sand. Southern Hills and its penalty for putting a ball in the bunkers have been a delight.

Cart Please

By Brendan Porath

Who needs a cart most – John Daly, Tiger Woods, or Brooks Koepka? Daly, of course, is zipping around the PGA on four wheels again with McDonald’s Super Size soda firmly in the cupholder. It’s not an unfamiliar scene now at this major, even if it certainly doesn’t feel or look “major.”

Koepka and his balky hip promptly went out in 40 and it appears he’ll be irrelevant for the first two majors of another year. He was automatic and a lion at the game’s most important events, but his health is making that a much more uneven proposition.

Since his accident and return to sparing and hobbled golf, Tiger has gone on record saying he would never request or use a cart. It looked like he needed one late in the first round, which was a pleasant and exhilarating loop for the first 10 minutes or so and that’s about it. Then it became a slog, as this was apparently one of Tiger’s “bad days” health wise, and it showed after the opening birdie. It got particularly dire in the last half-hour, as he was noticeably wincing in pain and trying to put less weight into his right leg on a few big swings at the last two holes. He was seen limping significantly around the clubhouse and scoring after the round.

The return to the Masters was about getting back in the arena, just being there, and you could see the smile on Tiger’s face when he talked about just playing in that tournament again. At some point, and that was probably this week, it’s going to be about competing and contending again (“I feel like I can, definitely … I just have to go out there and do it. I have to do my work. Starts on Thursday and I’ll be ready.”). He didn’t look particularly competitive on Thursday, and it did not look particularly enjoyable or painless. So he’ll have to continue weighing the toll and benefit of playing events in pain to finish T42 or in some middling spot. The thrill of just finishing the race and being in the arena again will wear off, or maybe it won’t because this is Tiger and just being there is what it’s all about … or he’ll just keep going through the pain until he’s competitive again. Either way, he looked like the one most in need of a cart on Thursday, which is something no one wants to watch, let alone endure.

Major Players

By Andy Johnson

Cam Smith is at it again after an opening round 68 to sit in a tie for 7th deep into the first day. Smith is now firmly a world-class player and threat in major championships. He has been a standout at the Masters, doing everything but win, and captured The Players in March. Today’s round was hardly perfect but he was able to overcome his missteps, a double bogey at the par-5 13th and three other bogeys, thanks to his outstanding seven birdies. That in a nutshell is the key to Smith’s major success: he makes a shitload of birdies. Smith leads the PGA Tour in birdies per round at 5.38, a whopping .27 per round over second in the category, Justin Thomas.

With so many birdies, Smith can overcome the inevitable bogey that pops up in majors.  Why does he make so many birdies? He couples deadly iron play with an elite short game and putting. He eats alive par 5s thanks to his incredible short game and when he finds the fairway off the tee, his superb iron play allows him to hit it close enough to make putts.

More: An analytical look at the rise of Cam Smith

Playing with Smith is another player that is developing a major championship reputation, Will Zalatoris, who was two better than Smith with a 66. No Laying Up tweeted about how Zalatoris has gained 1.17 shots from tee to green since joining the PGA Tour, but in majors it’s an elevated 2.24 shots per round.

It’s an interesting stat and the common thought is that Zalatoris’s game elevates in major championships. I personally believe that the courses and setups of major championships elevate and allow Zalatoris’s standout ball-striking to shine more. This is more about the courses giving him the opportunity to distance himself from others more so than Zalatoris raising his level of play. If the PGA Tour played real championship golf more often on great golf courses, we would see Zalatoris perform better more frequently. The putter was hot except for one jabby miss on Thursday, which will always be the question for Zalatoris: can his shaky stroke hold up late in tournaments?