ROCHESTER, N.Y. — It’s testament to the vagaries of golf that a man who has looked almost peerless as world No. 1 shot 76 in the opening round of the 105th PGA Championship to find himself 10 strokes adrift of someone who has bettered 16th place in 48-man fields larded with also-rans just once this year.
Jon Rahm will be less concerned about the double-digit deficit he faces against Bryson DeChambeau than the nine strokes he spotted his closest pursuer in the world rankings, Scottie Scheffler, whose bogey-free 67 offered no obvious chink in the armor to the other 155 men at Oak Hill Country Club.
Rahm, the Masters champion, gamely rationalized what was the most unexpected score Thursday.
“The only thing I can look back on myself is the three short putts I missed on the back nine, I’m between three to five feet, if I make those putts, I shoot 3-over which is not the worst-case scenario,” he offered.
But Rahm didn’t make those putts, nor many others, and so finds himself several zip codes distant from the lead.
“I mean, it wasn’t my best swings on the last two holes and made a birdie and a par. So there’s many ways to do this. You don’t need to play perfect,” he continued, at least salvaging optimism from his bruising morning.
Rory McIlroy salvaged a semi-respectable total (71, one-over-par) on a day where he too looked awfully ill at ease.
“Didn’t hit the ball well at all. Thought I did really well to shoot what I did,” he said. The round seemed perilously close to getting away from him most of the day, during which he found just two of 14 fairways.
“It was pretty tricky to hit fairways, even some of the decent drives that I hit were just missing the fairways,” he said.
McIlroy tied his playing partner Collin Morikawa, who struggled again with his much-vaunted ball-striking — losing strokes to the field both off the tee and with his approach play — but was saved by his oft-lamented putter, requiring just 25 blows on the greens. The third member of the supergroup, defending champion Justin Thomas, wobbled to a dreary 74.
That left Thomas in a group with Brooks Koepka, one of the most high-profile LIV Golf players in the field and one who finished runner-up in the Masters last month. After the round, Koepka bemoaned the quality of his ball striking.
“That was the worst I’ve hit it in a long time. Scrambled really well. Missed a couple putts early but scrambled really well late. Yeah, that was the worst I’ve hit it in a really long time,” he told the media.
Despite missing half of the fairways and two-thirds of the greens, the two-time champion insisted he’s not out of the running for a third Wanamaker Trophy in a later conversation by the clubhouse. “I think 4-under wins,” he said. “A couple good rounds and I’m right there.”
While the elite furiously scratched and sniffed for positives, his Serene Highness Scheffler sounded positively relaxed. “I came into today’s round just trying to play solid golf. I kept the course in front of me for the most part and hit some really good tee shots on the important holes,” he said, with the air of a man wholly untroubled by the petty indignities Oak Hill was inflicting on most of his colleagues.
So went day one. Scheffler’s game plan for day two, now that he’s gained distance on most of the game’s best?
“Going into tomorrow I’ll try to do more of the same,” he shrugged.
That’s a luxury most of his elite peers don’t share.