St Louis: In an ad that Justin Thomas never tires of watching, his father, Mike, has an unhampered view of Thomas’ development, from a child not much bigger than the golf club he has in his hands to the full-grown 2017 PGA champion. On Thursday, Thomas’ parents were on hand for his latest milestone: his first defence of his first major title.
But after nine holes, they had seen — or rather, not seen — enough. With no decent vantage point for any of their son’s shots, Mike and Jani Thomas retreated to the air-conditioned clubhouse at Bellerive Country Club, where the television afforded them a much better view of his 1-under-par 69, which left him five strokes behind the leader, Gary Woodland.
“I’m surprised they lasted nine holes,” said Thomas, who played alongside Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy in the marquee morning group of former world No 1s.
Woods, 42, had not played in the PGA Championship since 2015 because of a balky back that required multiple operations. It was his first competitive start as a pro in this sports-crazed region, and the fans could not have been more exuberant if the ninth threesome off the 10th tee had been Bob Gibson, Kurt Warner and Brett Hull.
By the time Thomas, McIlroy and Woods started, the spectators lining the hole were positioned 20-deep in some spots. “It was pretty cool to be out there at 8:30 in the morning and have an atmosphere like that,” said McIlroy, who equalled Woods’ 70.
This is Thomas’ fourth PGA Championship — his fifth if you count the 2000 event, which he attended as a 7-year-old in his hometown, Louisville, Kentucky. The winner that year, Woods, played the first two rounds with Jack Nicklaus, who was competing in the tournament for the final time. As Nicklaus, an 18-time major winner, passed the ceremonial baton to Woods, he mentioned that he had played alongside Gene Sarazen in Sarazen’s PGA Championship swansong. With Thomas teeing it up alongside Woods in the first round of his first major defence, it felt to Woods as if a circle was closing.
“It’s interesting what this game of golf can do, how we can basically last for so many generations,” Woods, a 14-time major winner, said, adding, “It’s pretty neat.”
McIlroy, a two-time PGA champion, consistently drove the ball the farthest, but his wedge play was mostly mediocre and his day was capsulised by his play on the par-4 12th. He was the last to hit his approach after a 338-yard drive but was the first to putt and needed two attempts from 14 feet.
“I’ve gotten into a couple of bad habits and that just makes it tougher for me to be consistent,” McIlroy said, alluding to his penchant for rotating on his swing with his short clubs as if he has his driver in his hands.
Woods, 42, invariably was hitting longer clubs into the greens than either McIlroy or Thomas, but as dialled in as he was with his irons, it was hardly a disadvantage.
“Tiger, I thought that his iron play was really good today,” McIlroy said, “and he got a few birdies out of it.”
Woods got off to an inauspicious start, making bogey on his first hole after missing the fairway off the tee and double bogey on his second hole, the 11th, after missing the fairway off the tee and finding a water hazard with his second shot. Woods finally put a ball in the fairway at No 12. He then entered a portable toilet — or was it a phone booth? Woods emerged with a fresh shirt and what appeared to be superpowers. He stuck his approach and made the 2-foot putt; overall, he was 3-under wearing the replacement shirt, which he said he donned because his first one was soaked with perspiration from his warm-up.
“I hung in there and turned it around,” Woods said, adding, “Just happy to be within five.”
Unlike McIlroy, who said he did not have a shot in his round that stood out, Woods had no trouble identifying his best swing. It was his 7-iron approach at the par-4 18th, which came to rest 4 feet from the hole. Woods, who made the putt, said, “It was nice to kind of turn the tide going into the back nine with that birdie.”
The spectators following Woods held smartphone cameras up like lighters at a concert, recording for posterity their brush with greatness. After Woods walked off the 18th green, one man called somebody and shouted into his phone, “He just birdied 18!”
Maggie Schwarz, 8, also was excited as Woods made the turn. After scurrying from hole to hole to get close to the ropes, she finally caught Woods’ attention as he walked down the 18th fairway. Schwarz got a wave and a smile from Woods when he saw the tiny T-shirt she was waving. The lettering across the front read, “Tiger stole my birthday, Dec. 30.”
Schwarz said Woods, who has not won a major in her lifetime, is her favourite player. When asked why, she replied, “Because he’s the best.”
After three holes, Thomas was four strokes better than Woods. Thomas had three birdies on his first nine, but made two bogeys on the front side, including on his last hole, No. 9, when his tee shot came to rest in an unraked pitch mark in a fairway bunker. After punching out of the sand, he was left with 101 yards to the hole. Thomas hit his third shot to 12 feet but missed his par attempt by inches.
At this tournament last year, Thomas came to his last hole at 3-over and finished with a birdie that provided a spark; he covered the final 54 holes in 10-under for a two-stroke victory. Cognizant of how much momentum can be lost or gained on the last hole of a round, Thomas typically would have been upset to finish the way he did.
But Thursday was not a normal day for any of the competitors. On the eve of the tournament, Jarrod Lyle, 36, who had twice overcome leukaemia to play more than 120 PGA Tour events, died in his native Australia. Even those who did not know him well were deeply affected by his death.