KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — One hole into the PGA Championship, Brooks Koepka was more worried about his brain than his ailing knee.
His opening tee shot on the 10th hole at Kiawah Island was struck poorly and didn’t quite clear a waste area. Koepka tried to do too much from a soft lie in the sand and barely got it out. It led to a double bogey, and the toughest part of the Ocean Course was still to come.
But this is a major, and this is Koepka, and that’s when he’s at his best. He knuckled down from that mess by running off six birdies the rest of the way for a 3-under 69 and a share of the early lead Thursday.
“The first rule is, if you’re in trouble, get the hell out. So mental mistake there. I deserved every bit of that double bogey,” Koepka said. “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 wind was stiff enough that only four of the 78 players in the morning wave broke 70, and only a dozen others managed to break par.
Keegan Bradley, a PGA champion from 10 years ago, was one of only three players to get as low as 4 under in the morning before making a mistake, which was inevitable on this course. Bradley also shot a 69, along with Viktor Hovland of Norway and Aaron Wise.
Koepka wasn’t alone in making an odd blunder. He was among the few who recovered.
Justin Thomas was going along nicely on the back nine until he had trouble getting out of the sand and then chopped his way through the rough for a double bogey on the 18th hole. Two holes later, he sent a sand shot over the green and just into a hazard for another 6 on the par-5 second. He shot 75.
Rory McIlroy, coming off a victory at Quail Hollow two weeks ago, sent his opening tee shot into a water hazard some 30 yards right of safety. He salvaged a bogey, but certainly not his round. McIlroy made bogey on three of the par 5s for a 75, his worst start ever in a PGA Championship.
Both turned down requests to talk about their rounds.
The design of the Ocean Course is unique in that the opening four holes and finishing five holes go one direction, and the nine holes in between go the other. Whether they started on the front or the back, there was rough patches somewhere along the way.
What helped is that the PGA of America moved up tee boxes, as expected, to account for the wind. The course played to 7,660 yards – 178 yards shorter than the scorecard – though that didn’t make it easy. Thomas, for one, still hit 7-wood into the 214-yard 17th.
Martin Laird ran off four straight birdies – three of them on holes dead into the wind – only to close with a pair of bogeys for a wild round. He started with three straight pars and made only two the rest of the day. That put him at 70, along with defending PGA champion Collin Morikawa.
“I kind of went out with the mindset this week, even though it’s hard, don’t give the course too much respect,” Laird said. “You still have to take on shots when you have the chance. When I had a spot where I could go at the flag, I was making sure I kept doing it and hit a lot of really nice shots and managed to make some birdies.
“You’re going to hit bogeys on this golf course,” he said. “It’s nice when you can throw in a bunch of birdies, too.”
Rickie Fowler was among those at 71.
John Daly shot an 85, one of five scores in the 80s from the early starters. There were certain to be more by the end of the day.
Finally heeled from a left knee injury, Koepka injured ligaments in his right knee in March and has played only twice since then, the Masters and last week in Dallas. He has built a reputation for playing his best in the majors, with back-to-back titles in both the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship over the last five years.
Even while not he’s at full strength, his outlook doesn’t change. Despite a double bogey to start on one of the more difficult courses in the PGA rotation, he didn’t flinch.
“It’s a major. I’m going to show up. I’m ready to play,” he said. “I love it when it’s difficult. I think that’s why I do so well in the majors. I just know mentally I can grind it out.”
Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm and Jordan Spieth were among those playing in the afternoon. It wasn’t quite as windy as it was during practice rounds, but it was windy enough. Kiawah is a challenge on a calm day.