Defending champion Brooks Koepka equalled the lowest round in the tournament’s history to leave playing partner Tiger Woods trailing in his wake in the US PGA Championship at Bethpage State Park.
Koepka carded seven birdies in a flawless opening round of 63 to set a new course record on the fearsome Black Course, where Woods was the only player to finish under par in winning the 2002 US Open.
Masters champion Woods had threatened to recover from a nightmare start when he eagled the fourth, his 13th hole of the day, to get under par for the first time, only to drop three shots in the next four holes and finish two over, nine behind Koepka.
“My putter was hot today, I’m not going to lie,” Koepka said after becoming the first player in US PGA history to record multiple rounds of 63 in his career. “It hasn’t felt that good in a long time.
“This is a crazy day. Seven under is not going to happen every day, but I parred two par fives and missed a five-footer on number 11. It could have been a helluva round, I just need to clean a few things up.”
Koepka, who has won three of his last seven major starts and finished runner-up to Woods at Augusta National last month, warned his rivals he has no intentions of easing up, adding: “I’m just going about my business. You’d love to make it more difficult for them.
“It’s always nice being out ahead. I don’t think it’s happened to me that often where I’ve got a three, four-shot lead over the field. But (if) you take a hole off it could change very quickly out here. So you’ve just got to keep the pedal down.
“I think I’m still learning, understanding my game, and I think over the next few years, I’m excited for what’s to come. I understand a lot more about my misses, where to hit it and in major championships I just suck it up; you don’t always have to aim at the flag like you do in regular events. Sometimes it’s just about how few bogeys and doubles you make this week.”
New Zealand’s Danny Lee is just a shot off the lead after carding a brilliant 64 in the breezier afternoon conditions, with England’s Tommy Fleetwood, who finished second to Koepka in last year’s US Open at another Long Island venue Shinnecock Hills, another three strokes back after a 67.
“It doesn’t always go right, but I enjoy the toughest courses and I enjoy getting in a dogfight out there with the toughest courses in the world,” Fleetwood said. “It was a little more playable than the practice days have been but overall still a brutal golf course and as soon as you’re out of position, you’re going to struggle. Luckily enough, I hit plenty of good golf shots.”
Starting on the back nine alongside Koepka and Open champion Francesco Molinari, Woods missed the fairway on the 502-yard par-four tenth and could only lay up around 80 yards short of the green.
From there the 43-year-old flew his approach over the green and, after chipping to four feet, missed the bogey putt after Koepka had holed from 40 feet for an unlikely birdie.
Woods steadied the ship with a string of pars before holing from 15 feet for birdie on the 15th, only to three-putt the par-three 17th for another double bogey after his tee shot had plugged in a greenside bunker.
Koepka, who was joint second behind Woods at Augusta National, birdied the 14th and 18th to cover the back nine in 32 and fared even better on the front nine, birdies on the first, third, fifth and ninth giving him a place in the record books.
Woods gave the large crowds something to cheer with birdies on the first and second and an eagle from 30 feet on the fourth, his first in the US PGA since 2001, but three-putted the fifth and seventh and failed to get up and down from the edge of the next.
“I got off to not the best start today, fought my way back and unfortunately let a couple slip away at the end with some bad putts,” said Woods, who was understood to be suffering from a cold when he opted not to practice on Wednesday. “It could have been a little bit better today and consequently I’m a long way back.”
Bidding to complete a career grand slam, Jordan Spieth opened with a 69, as did world No 1 Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler.
But two-time winner Rory McIlroy had to settle for a 72 as he could only muster a single birdie in his opening circuit.
Russell Knox, the sole Scot in the field, opened with the same score as both McIlroy and Woods, signing off at the par-4 18th with his second birdie of the day.