CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The predicted rain never arrived at Quail Hollow, but the thunder sure did. Thunder Bear, that is — or the translation for Thorbjorn Olesen‘s forename.
The Dane who plays the European Tour grabbed the early first-round lead at Quail Hollow on Thursday by shooting 4-under-par 67, a revelation perhaps to those unaware that he has 11 professional victories, including four on his home tour. Kevin Kisner, a two-time winner on the PGA Tour, matched him late in the day.
At the PGA, there really should be no surprises.
The deepest field of the four majors, with 97 of the top 100 in the world entered, is always going to yield a smattering of names that might not be at the top of everyone’s list.
On a warm, muggy day devoid of the bad weather previously expected, Olesen, 27, made six birdies and just two bogeys and Kisner birdied three of his last five holes. Meanwhile, tournament headliners Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy struggled to stay within reach of the lead.
Attempting to complete the career Grand Slam with a victory in his fourth different major championship, Spieth played an indifferent round, driving the ball better than he did in his win three weeks ago at Royal Birkdale, where he won The Open.
But missing was the magic with the putter, as Spieth holed nothing outside of 6 feet and needed 32 putts for his round, shooting 1-over 72.
McIlroy, who has won at Quail Hollow twice and has long been relishing an opportunity to play a major championship here, had it going for a while, getting to 2 under par before a bogey, double-bogey stretch on the back nine sent him tumbling into a tie for 33rd with Spieth.
“I know I’m still in it, but I know that tomorrow’s round becomes that much more important to stay in it,” Spieth said. “I’ve got to make up ground. If I’m 5 back at the start of the day, I’ve got to be less than 5 back after Friday to really feel like I can play the way this golf course needs to be played and still be able to win.”
The task is made more difficult by the number of players between Spieth, McIlroy and the lead. This is a typically diverse leaderboard, with 24 players under par despite a course that had dried out and greens that were ultrafast.
That didn’t stop Olesen, who has four top-10s this year on the European Tour. Or Kisner, who won at Colonial earlier this year and has six top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour. With a deeper field than the other majors, there are more chances for excellent players who couldn’t get into the other fields to make a move. Case in point: Grayson Murray, a PGA Tour rookie who recently won the Barbasol Championship, which was played opposite The Open.
Koepka played with Spieth (and Sergio Garcia in a grouping of the year’s major champions) and talked about the course being a “bomber’s paradise,” something that certainly fits the U.S. Open champion.
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He also got a glimpse of Spieth, noting the lack of putts made. “But he’s a grinder,” Koepka said. “It’s impressive to watch him play. He picks apart a golf course really, really well. A lot of maturity. It’s fun to see.”
McIlroy, among the pre-tournament favorites due to his love for the Quail Hollow course, found that it played much differently than in May when the PGA Tour makes its annual stop. Firmer greens and deeper rough around the putting surfaces, he said, made it a sterner test.
Stalled on four major championships since his PGA win in 2014, McIlroy has shown some form of late after a frustrating year that saw him twice take lengthy breaks due to a rib injury. He’s been in the top five in each of his past two starts, including a tie for fourth at The Open.
“It wasn’t very easy. It was tough,” McIlroy said. “Greens were difficult. Greens got very grainy as the day went on, as well. If you just hit a putt a tiny bit off line, it exaggerated it. It was tough to hole putts this afternoon. Hopefully the surfaces are a little better tomorrow morning and we can hopefully hole some more putts.”
Ernie Els (80) and Phil Mickelson (79) combined to shoot 159 in what was the start of the 100th major championship for each. It doesn’t promise to last long for either. Same for defending champion Jimmy Walker, who shot 81.
For now, they’re all chasing Olesen and Kisner, names you might not have figured on, but it’s all in keeping with the norm at the PGA Championship.