Golfers in the first major championship of 2020 needed no introduction.
Mostly because no one was there to applaud them.
But those formalities took place anyway for the opening round Thursday of the PGA Championship, the first with no spectators. As players stepped to the tee on No. 1, a “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome … ,” pierced the eerie hush of a misty morning at Harding Park.
“Hearing Tiger Woods introduced without anybody saying anything has probably only happened once, and that was today,” said John Bridgeman, a PGA board member who made the introductions on the first tee, but was within earshot of Woods being introduced on No. 10.
The group that included Woods and Rory McIlroy, one that would attract thousands of fans at a typical major championship, instead was followed by about 100 people, primarily reporters and TV crew members.
“I said to the lads walking down the first, `We wouldn’t have had the ideal group, the ideal tee time, two groups ahead of Tiger,’” said Ireland’s Shane Lowry, winner of the most recent major before this one, the British Open last summer. “Around here, it would have been a bit different. The crowds would have been huge and moving an awful lot. It would have been tricky.
“It’s different, but we’re in strange times in our lives.”
Strange in some ways, but familiar in others. There were plenty of recognizable names populating the leaderboard after a day when many players were unfazed by the cool conditions and robust rough.
Jason Day, the 2015 PGA champion, shot a five-under 65 to take the early lead, his first bogey-free round at a major since the third round of the 2017 British Open. By the time the sun broke through in the afternoon, creating postcard views, Brendon Todd tied Day at five under. Todd’s best finish in a major was a tie for 12th in the 2015 British Open.
Lurking one stroke behind Day and Todd is a group that includes Brooks Koepka, Zach Johnson, and Martin Kaymer, each of whom has won multiple majors.
In fact, Koepka is the two-time defending PGA champion and looking to join Walter Hagen as the only players to win the Wanamaker Trophy three years in a row. Hagen actually strung together four such wins from 1924-27.
“I mean, it’s only 18 holes right now,” said Koepka, who had six birdies to offset his two bogeys. “I feel good. I feel confident. I’m excited for the next three days. I think I can definitely play a lot better, and just need to tidy a few things up, and we’ll be there come Sunday on the back nine.”
Woods is in a group at two-under despite missing seven of 14 fairways, and at one point five in a row. He made birdie putts of eight, 32, 14, and 12 feet, and a nearly 21-footer for par. A four-time PGA champion, Woods shot a 68 for his lowest opening round in this tournament since 2009 (67).
He was using a new, longer putter that he had been tinkering with for the last year.
“It’s difficult for me to bend over at times, and so practicing putting, I don’t spend the hours I used to,” Woods said. “Wasn’t unusual for me to spend four, five, six hours putting, per day. I certainly can’t log that with my back being fused.”
Justin Thomas, No. 1 in the world rankings, was at two-under with seven holes to play before a pair of double-bogeys on his second nine. He shot a one-over 71.
One of the enduring images of the day was a bulked-up Bryson DeChambeau swinging with such ferocity that he cracked the shaft of his driver. After hitting his tee shot on No. 7, he leaned lightly on his club, and the driver head snapped off, essentially leaving him with a pool cue in his hand and a bemused look on his face.
“I just went over to pick up my tee, leaned on it a little, and the thing just. … See ya later,” he said.
He chatted with a rules official and confirmed that he could legally change out a new shaft, which he did on a later hole.
Whereas DeChambeau had booming drives of 352, 347, 342, 334, and 331 yards, among others, Jeff Hart of Solana Beach resides at the other end of the spectrum. A two-time All-American at USC back in the 1970s Hart, 60, has bounced around the PGA, Nationwide, and Champions tours. He was in the first group to tee off, and averaged 252.9 yards on his two drives.
But Hart is an example of the PGA Championship’s appeal, where everyday club professionals get to size their game up against the best players in golf.
“On the longer par-fours, I’m trying to roll the ball up, and I think I hit five or six drivers off the fairway just trying to roll them up on these long par-fours, ” said Hart who was one-under after four holes, but had eight bogeys in the final 13 holes to shoot a 77.
“It’s like pitching in the in the major leagues with a 60-mile-an-hour fastball,” said the 5-foot-9, 150-pound Hart. “They’re teeing off on you, basically.”
For him, the absence of a gallery didn’t feel so strange.
“I’m used to it,” he said. “It’s normal for me.”