Defending champion Brooks Koepka, chasing his fourth victory in eight major starts, opened with a record-equalling low score to grab the lead at the 101st PGA Championship on Thursday while inconsistent Tiger Woods struggled at Bethpage Black.
Koepka fired a seven-under-par 63, the day’s only bogey-free round, to take a one-stroke lead over New Zealand’s Danny Lee after 18 holes while Woods, in his first start since snapping an 11-year major drought at last month’s Masters, settled for a 72 and a share of 51st.
Third-ranked Koepka closed with a 33-foot birdie putt to set a course record and match the lowest round in tournament history.
“That was one of the best rounds I’ve played probably as a professional,” said Koepka, who turned pro in 2012.
It was the second 63 in as many years at a PGA Championship for the 29-year-old American, who joined Australian Greg Norman and Fiji’s Vijay Singh as the only players to shoot so low twice in majors.
“My putter was hot today. It hasn’t felt that good in a long time,” Koepka said. “This was a crazy day, seven-under, it’s not going to happen every day.”
Lee closed with back-to-back birdies to shoot 64, added distance with his driver the key to his low round of 2019 and in 10 career major starts.
“I’m definitely hitting it further,” he said. “That’s a huge bonus for me. I’m interested myself in what I can do out there this week.”
Tommy Fleetwood, trying to become the first Englishman to win the PGA since Jim Barnes in 1919, shot 67 to stand a distant third, one stroke ahead of France’s Mike Lorenzo-Vera, South Korean Kang Sung and Americans Chez Reavie, Luke List and Pat Perez.
A pack of eight on 69 included major winners Phil Mickelson, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and top-ranked Dustin Johnson. Spieth would complete a career Grand Slam with a win while Johnson’s top ranking is vulnerable if he doesn’t claim the Wanamaker Trophy.
Both Koepka and playing partner Woods said his round could have been better, perhaps below the record 62 fired by South Africa’s Branden Grace in the 2017 British Open.
“I parred both par-5s and missed a couple of eight-footers for birdie,” Koepka said. “It could have been a hell of a round.”
Koepka, who began on the back nine, holed a 40-foot birdie putt at 10 and sank a 20-foot birdie putt at the par-3 14th.
He charged with four birdies in six holes before sinking a 10-footer to save par at the sixth ahead of his closing heroics.
“He played well,” Woods said. “That was probably the highest score he could have shot out there. He left a few out there. He could easily have been a couple better.
“I wasn’t as close as I would have liked to have been for sure.”
Only two of eight prior players who fired major-opening 63s won titles, Jack Nicklaus at the 1980 US Open and Ray Floyd at the 1982 PGA.
Koepka, who seeks a third consecutive US Open win next month, could become the first player to hold back-to-back titles at two majors, but no player has ever repeated as a US Open and PGA champion.
Nightmare for Tiger
Sixth-ranked Woods, coming off his stunning 15th major victory in last month’s Masters, endured a nightmare day in his first competitive round since capturing his 15th career major title 33 days ago at Augusta National.
On the same course where he won the 2002 US Open, Woods opened with a double bogey at 10 after finding rough, laying up and blasting over the green. He answered with a birdie at 15 but double-bogeyed the par-3 17th after finding sand off the tee.
“The golf course is playing tough,” Woods said. “It’s not that hard to make bogeys out there but it’s hard to make birdies.”
Woods fought back with birdies at the first and second holes, then curled in a 30-foot eagle putt to make the crowd roar.
But par misses from inside 10 feet at the fifth, seventh and the par-3 eighth doomed his fightback.
“Fought my way back and got it under par for the day,” Woods said. “Let it slip with a couple of mistakes and a couple of bad putts at the end.”
Joining Woods on 72 was Rory McIlroy, whose lone birdie came on the 18th hole.
Daly carts around PGA
It was the first PGA Championship played in May since 1949, moving from August this year in a revamp of the global golf schedule.
American John Daly, hampered by right knee arthritis, used a cart after an appeal under the Americans with Disabilities Act. He’s the first player to use a cart in a major since Casey Martin at the 2012 US Open.
It only helped so much. Daly shot 75.