Gary Woodland takes PGA Championship lead with afternoon surge, a shot ahead of Rickie Fowler

Lunch was going to taste particularly good to Rickie Fowler.

On the course early and having finished an opening round of five-under-par 65 that put him comfortably in the lead of the PGA Championship, Fowler could see the breeze beginning to ripple the flags at Bellerive Country Club.


The greens, relatively smooth in the morning, were getting tracked and slower with each passing hour.

There seemed every reason to believe that Fowler, still trying to win his first major, would sleep on his advantage.

Then Gary Woodland, who started five hours after Fowler, used his muscular game and a phenomenal putting day to overcome any disadvantages the afternoon presented.

After Woodland nearly reached the 597-yard, parfive5 17th hole in two shots, he made an easy birdie to become the only player to reach six under. The 34-year-old Kansas native came inches short with a putt on 18 that would have given him an eighth birdie over the last 12 holes, and he finished with a 64.

The score — one stroke off the PGA record of 63 — was the best in the expected river of red numbers on the Bellerive layout that is vulnerable because of damp fairways and fragile greens intentionally made to run slower.

Forty-seven players shot under par. Behind Fowler, former Masters champion Zach Johnson and South African Brandon Stone each shot four-under 66, and there were 11 golfers tied with 67s, including world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and fellow major winners Justin Rose, Jason Day and Stewart Cink.

Tiger Woods, playing in his first PGA since 2015 and coming off a tie for sixth in the British Open, was three over after two holes but scrambled back to shoot even-par 70.

The leaderboard was peppered with golf styles of all sorts — from bombers such as Woodland and Dustin Johnson to sharp ball strikers such as Fowler, Zach Johnson and Rose.

Woodland, a three-time PGA Tour winner who doesn’t have a top-10 finish in a major, happened to put everything together in one of the finest rounds of his career. It was made all the sweeter by the dozens of family members and friends who cheered from the gallery.

Woodland grew up Topeka, Kan., four hours west of St. Louis, and played at the University of Kansas — the bitter rival of Missouri. His attire Thursday was something everyone could get behind — a red, white and blue shirt with “America” down the back.

“It’s as close as I’ve ever played to home, which is awesome,” Woodland said. “I have a million friends and family out here, which is really cool.

“We’re kind of in enemy territory down here in Missouri; we’re big Kansas people. But the fans were nice to me today as well, and I really fed off of the energy.”

For a player who currently ranks sixth on the PGA Tour in driving distance, but 99th in strokes gained putting, Woodland was a wizard on the greens in the opening round. He made 152 feet worth of putts — the most in his 10-year PGA Tour career. The longest came from 44 feet at No. 11.

Woodland credited the recent lessons he got from instructor Phil Kenyon, whom he sought in desperation after terrific ball striking and sloppy putting at the British Open.


“I was hitting it good and getting nothing out of it,” Woodland said.

He switched to a thicker grip that helps him release the putter better.

“It’s nice to see the results,” said Woodland, who won in Phoenix early this season. “You work so hard and you want to see results to back up the work that you’ve done. Today was just a step in the right direction.”

Though a mix of players are close behind, Woodland asserted that the soft Bellerive course is playing to the advantage of a bruising hitter.

“I can hit a lot of drivers, be aggressive, and attack from the fairway,” he said.

Fowler, 29, is better known for his precise iron play and smooth putting stroke. He combined those beautifully in the first round, hitting 16 of 18 greens — an extraordinary accomplishment in a major.

The Murrieta native hit the ball far closer to the hole than Woodland, covering only 66 feet for his putts.

Fowler spoke of sticking to a game plan of avoiding the urge to overpower the long, wet course.

“I’ve always been a good mid-iron and long-iron player,” Fowler said. “So get me in the fairway, and with the soft greens I feel like we can pick apart the golf course, as long as we continue to play smart and stay within ourselves.”

Fowler faces more pressure than some others because he hasn’t won a major in 34 tries. His best PGA finish is a tie for third, and he was runner-up in the other three majors, including this year’s Masters.

He mostly deflects questions about building expectations.

“You can’t force the issue,” he said.

Fowler fared better than two of his closest friends with a slice of history on the line.

Justin Thomas — trying to become the second player in PGA stroke-play history to win back-to-back — played well early in getting to three under, but suffered some lapses on the back nine and shot 69.

Looking to complete the career Grand Slam, Jordan Spieth double-bogeyed the first hole and looked generally disgruntled in settling for a 71.

This report will be updated throughout the afternoon round.

It was originally published at 11:55 a.m.