The Irish challenge at the 102nd PGA Championship got off to a battling start as majors golf returned to the sporting calendar for the first time in 13 months on Thursday.
It had been 382 days since Shane Lowry lifted the Claret Jug as Open champion, bringing an end to the 2019 major championship season, and few could have imagined there would be so long a wait for the next shot to be struck in the sport’s most important tournaments.
The Covid-19 pandemic has changed everything of course and with both the Masters and PGA postponed in April and May respectively and last month’s 149th Open cancelled, there was much to celebrate as the world’s best gathered at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco in pursuit of the Wanamaker Trophy.
Getting this event played at all meant this was the first major in history to be played without spectators and the cool conditions in northern California gave the first day another point of difference to the usual American fare.
Yet if the weather was more akin to an Irish summer’s day, it did not make life any easier for Lowry and Rory McIlroy, although the former, at least, will be reasonably satisfied with the positions from which he will start his second round on Friday, at 9:36pm Irish time.
With 2015 champion Jason Day the early clubhouse leader with a bogey-free five-under-par 65, his lowest opening round in a major championship, Lowry lies just three strokes further back thanks to a three-birdie, one-bogey 68.
It was all the more impressive given the Open champion had battled back from the bogey coming early in his round. Having started on the back nine, Lowry was looking to continue the welcome momentum he had gathered last weekend with a tie for sixth at the WGC-FedEx St Jude Invitational in Memphis, his best finish since the PGA Tour emerged from lockdown in June.
It was an inauspicious start, Lowry, playing with defending champion Brooks Koepka and 2019 US Open champ Gary Woodland, finding a fairway bunker on the par-five 10th before getting up and down for par and he bogeyed his fifth, the par-four 14th after missing his par putt from 12 feet. The world number 26 did not let the setback affect him adversely and three holes later he was back to level par thanks to an excellent tee shot at the 171-yard par-three 17th which left him with a birdie putt from inside four feet that was duly dispatched.
There was better to come with on the front side, his inward nine, which got off to a great start with birdie at the par-four first, an excellent approach needing just a seven footer for birdie. There was an opportunity missed at Harding Park’s only other par-five, the 607-yard fourth when Lowry found the thick left fairway rough and again had to rescue par but his otherwise solid play from tee to green was rewarded with another birdie, this time at the short par-four seventh, the approach wedge from 109 yards leaving just a two-foot putt for birdie.
All in all it was a good day’s work for Lowry that deserved a warm round of applause from a packed gallery but these are different times.
McIlroy, knocked off the top of the rankings by Jon Rahm a couple of weeks ago and reduced to number three when Justin Thomas leapfrogged Rahm with victory at the WGC-FedEx St Jude on Sunday, has certainly missed the crowds since the restart, as he again admitted in his pre-season press conference and without them to feed off, even the company of playing partners Tiger Woods and Thomas failed to inspire a return to the form that had seen rack up the top-five finishes in the early part of 2020.
It had all looked so promising when he birdied his first, the par-five 10th but the four-time major winner suffered three bogeys in a row at the par-fours from 12 through to 14. The first two were down to missed putts from inside 10 feet but it was a wayward drive left on the 14th that landed McIlroy in trouble. Landing in a native area, he took a penalty drop into the left rough and battled for his bogey from there.
Welcome birdies at 16 and 18, his seventh and ninth holes took the Holywood golfer back to level par and another at the first, his 10th took him into red numbers again at one under, only to backpedal once more at the par-four sixth. Again it was a wayward driver, into left rough from where he found a greenside bunker. Even then there was a chance to save par but McIlroy, missed the putt from six feet to slip back to level par and will begin his second round at 9:58pm Irish time by no means out of it.
Meanwhile, James Sugrue’s chance of defending his Amateur Championship title later this month has been put under serious threat following the GUI’s recommendation that players from the Republic Of Ireland withdraw from overseas events, including in Great Britain.
The GUI has recommended players from the Republic of Ireland withdraw from the Brabazon Trophy (August 18-21) and The Amateur Championship (August 25-30), both in England, and the European Amateur Championship (Individual) in France (September 2-5).