PGA first round report: Lee Westwood shares lead

Lee Westwood watches his tee shot on the 18th hole during the first round of the 96th PGA Championship at Valhalla. Picture: Getty
Lee Westwood watches his tee shot on the 18th hole during the first round of the 96th PGA Championship at Valhalla. Picture: Getty
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ONE Ryder Cup captain would have been smiling; the other tearing his hair out.

Good starts in the 96th US PGA Championship from Lee Westwood, Henrik Stenson, Rory McIlroy, Ian Poulter and Joost Luiten simply added to Paul McGinley’s pleasing position in the countdown to Gleneagles.

Westwood, finding form in the nick of time in his bid to secure a ninth Ryder Cup appearance, took pride of place as he carded a six-under-par 65 to share the lead with American duo Ryan Palmer and Kevin Chappell.

Apart from the 66 that earned Jim Furyk a share of fourth spot with Stenson, McIlroy, Chris Wood and Edoardo Molinari, though, there was very little in the way of encouragement for Tom Watson as far as next month’s match in Perthshire is concerned.

Having already seen Matt Kuchar add to his woes as the world No 6 withdrew with back problems just before he was due to head out in the opening round of the season’s final major, the American captain then watched defending champion Jason Dufner call it a day after just ten holes due to the neck injury he’s been struggling with for some time and only kept playing in the hope he could secure an automatic Ryder Cup spot.

Eighth in the standings before the tee off here, he’ll now have to sweat it out and, even then, there has to be some doubt if he’ll recover in time to be fit for Gleneagles.

“I’ve been feeling pretty bad all week,” said Dufner. “I felt bad last week. I haven’t made a birdie in 45 holes and I’m just not able to play golf right now. I don’t need to be out here. I tried to do what I could to be able to compete some and give it a go, but it is just pointless.”

Throw in the fact he’d already lost the services of Dustin Johnson due to him taking a hiatus from the game to deal with “personal issues” and Watson really needed something inspirational from Tiger Woods.

What he got, though, was pretty much what we’ve come to expect from the 14-times major winner. In short, he was largely unimpressive and the man himself didn’t try to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes as he reflected on a three-over-par 74.

“It wasn’t very good,” confessed Woods, winner of the same event here in 2000 but severely hampered in his bid to repeat that victory after seeing his preparations disrupted by the fact he only arrived in Louisville on the eve of the event after his participation had been in doubt due to back spasms that led to him withdrawing during the final round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

“I hit a lot of bad shots and I never got a putt to the hole - that’s not a good combo,” he added, having mustered just one birdie - a chip in at the 16th. “My swing was dialed in on the range but, unfortunately, I didn’t carry it to the golf course.” Apparently, it had nothing to do with his back. “It’s just a little stiff,” he reported after a round during which his frustration about the overall state of his game was laid bare on more than one occasion.

Woods is in grave danger of missing the FedEx Cup Play-Offs and, therefore, would need one of Watson’s three wild-cards to be at Gleneagles next month. Yet, according to one of his playing partners yesterday, the former world No 1 is still playing every round with the same commitment as he ever has.

“I thought he played with a lot of heart,” said Phil Mickelson, who birdied two of his last three holes for a two-under 69. “It’s not easy when your game isn’t where you want it and you’re hitting shots that you don’t normally hit.”

“I thought the second hole was a great example,” added the 2013 Open champion of Woods badly pulling his tee shot into water yet salvaging a bogey. “A lot of guys would just not have been focused at all for the next shot but he grinded out a bogey by making a great up and down.”

On the day he donated £10,000 to Thornhill Golf Club in Dumfriesshire, Westwood stepped up his late Ryder Cup challenge with a sensational effort.

It followed the Englishman’s closing 63 in the aforementioned WGC event in Akron and, all of a sudden, Westwood’s mood has changed considerably from the doom and gloom he was shrouded in following a missed cut in the Scottish Open at Royal Aberdeen last month.

“It was a good round of golf,” admitted the 41-year-old, who is lying 16th in the standings. “I hit a lot of fairways and putted very nicely - I just really carried on from the final round last week.”

He signed for nine birdies, including five in his last six holes. It would have been an even better effort but for a double-bogey 6 at the first, his tenth. That was caused by finding a divot mark with his tee shot, something that also happened at the ninth, though he made a birdie from that one after “trapping” a 9-iron to 35 feet.

“I’m there or thereabouts,” said Westwood of his Ryder Cup situation. “I wouldn’t be a million miles away with a good week this week. I’m still trying to qualify for the team to free up a pick for Paul. I don’t want to rely on a pick. There’s a bit more pressure when you’re a selection as you’ve almost got to justify your pick.”

Westwood’s generous donation to Thornhill has come about through him winning the Dunlop Par Three Challenge, an event that involved him and stablemate Darren Clarke in the three previous majors this season.

“I’ve obviously got a connection there,” said Westwood of his wife, Laurae, and her brother, Andrew Coltart, hailing from the Dumfriesshire village. “I’ve played Thornhill. They needed some money and I was happy to do that.”

Palmer and Chappell are 29th and 69th respectively in the standings so have little or no chance of making the US Ryder Cup team but Furyk, already guaranteed his spot, is warming up nicely for Gleneagles.

The former US Open champion opened with a 66, as did Italian Edoardo Molinari in the morning then, later in the day, McIlroy, Stenson and Wood also came in with five-under-par efforts.

Bidding for a hat-trick of wins after his back-to-back triumphs in The Open and the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, McIlroy was out in three-under before hooking a ball out of bounds at the tenth and then following a double-bogey 7 there by dropping another shot at the next.

Such is the 25-year-old’s confidence at the moment, though, that he was totally unfazed and bounced back with four straight birdies before finishing with another one - his eighth of the day.

“I double-crossed it,” he said of his rare poor shot of late at the tenth. “I was trying to hit it up the left side with a cut and just double crossed it. It is one of those things that just takes you by surprise, because in a way I haven’t hit a shot like that for a while.

“It sort of knocked me off track a little bit, but I came back really well with those birdies on the back nine, which sort of shows mentally where I’m at with my game.

“After I hit a good second shot on 12, I started to give myself a ‘C’mon, that was better’ and that sort of kick started things.”

Stenson, another player with his Ryder Cup spot secured for some time, signed for six birdies, while Wood’s flawless effort late in the day was crafted with Scot Mark Crane on his bag.

On a day that ended with 11 Europeans sitting inside the top 19, Poulter and Luiten, both still in the frame for automatic qualification for the Ryder Cup, got off to promising starts with matching 68s.

Poulter’s effort was just reward for a power of work he put in on the range earlier in the week. “It’s the most balls I’ve hit in any session and it’s coming into the right time of the year,” said the Englishman.

Mickelson, who is in the same position in the American qualifying race, was pleased with his opening effort, even though it got off to a bizarre start as his first tee shot hit a tent due to it being so wayward.

“It was the ugliest shot - it was so far left I don’t even know what to say,” he declared. “I was lucky it wasn’t out of bounds - horrific. I did the same thing on the next hole and played the first eight holes in two-over. But I knew my game was still there and I hit some good shots to play the last ten holes in four-under.”

Mickelson’s effort was matched by Masters champion Bubba Watson, US Open winner Martin Kaymer, Sergio Garcia and Scottish Open champion Justin Rose, who birdied his final three holes.