Corey Conners tames windswept Ocean Course to take early lead at US PGA Championship

While Canadian enjoys 'stress-free' opening day, while star turns such as McIlroy, Johnson and Thomas all struggle at Kiawah Island

Canada's Corey Conners tamed a windswept course on the opening day of the US PGA Championship to take a two-shot lead at Kiawah Island on Thursday.

The 29-year-old overcame gusting breezes and sandy waste areas that played havoc with many of the world's top golfers as second-ranked Justin Thomas and seventh-ranked Rory McIlroy struggled to 75s on the formidable Ocean Course.

Four-time major winner Brooks Koepka, 2011 PGA winner Keegan Bradley, fellow American Aaron Wise, Norway's Viktor Hovland, Australia's Cam Davis and England's Sam Horsfield were in a second-place pack on 69.

"It was fairly stress-free," Conners said of his round. "I got a lot of putts to go in. Kept the ball in the fairway for the most part."

Koepka, who is a two-time US PGA champion, recovered from playing like "an idiot" and making a double bogey on the 10th to card a three-under-par 69 and lie two shots off the lead.

The 31-year-old won the US PGA in 2018 and 2019 but had played just four competitive rounds since the end of February after undergoing surgery on March 16 to deal with a knee cap dislocation and ligament damage.

"It's a major. I'm going to show up," Koepka said. "I'm ready to play. I've been itching to do this since Augusta. I mean, I feel so much better now. I don't need to be 100 per cent to be able to play good."

Asked what he was thinking after the double bogey, Koepka added: "What an idiot I was.

"The first rule is, if you're in trouble, get the hell out. I couldn't reach the green. It was a bad lie. Just tried to hit a pull sand wedge up by the green instead of just chopping it out. So mental mistake there. Deserved every bit of that double bogey.

"It kind of helped me refocus. I can't play with any mistakes, maybe one a day, and that was my one, and I got it out of the way the first hole."

The American's playing partner McIlroy, who won the last time the event was staged at the South Carolina venue in 2012, carded a disappointing 75 which continued his costly habit of bad starts in the game's biggest events.

McIlroy's poor start has become a familiar story. Since 2015, the 32-year-old is a combined 35 over par in the first round of major championships and again faces an uphill task to win a fifth major title and first since the 2014 US PGA.

Five-time major winner Phil Mickelson was in an eighth-place group on 70, the 50-year-old US left-hander turning back the clock after four bogeys in the first six holes with four of his six birdies on the back nine to share seventh. "I was able to right the ship," he said. "I putted really well."

Big-hitting US Open champion Bryson DeChambeau had looked ready to muscle his way to a good day with a par-birdie-birdie start but faded with four consecutive bogeys before grinding to an even par 72.

"The wind just kicked my butt," said DeChambeau. "It's heat, hot. Just grinding out there, it takes a lot out of you.

"It's all just a really difficult thing that you've got to control out there. It's a lot of work."

Three-time major winner Jordan Spieth, who can complete a career grand slam with a victory, opened on 73 while top-ranked Dustin Johnson opened on 76.

Published: May 21, 2021 09:13 AM

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