PGA Championship at Valhalla was brought to its knees Thursday. Here’s why

Xander Schauffele on the 9th green at Valhalla Golf Club on Thursday.

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Two fans, just to the right of Valhalla’s beastly 256-yard, par-3 14th, were flummoxed. They were discussing the leaderboard, though not who was leading, or who wasn’t. It was how they were. They’d driven here from Milwaukee, after all, seeking a PGA Championship, a major championship. 

But instead they got a dart game. 

They saw more 3s from players on the course Thursday than have been delivered by their beloved Green Bay Packers kicker, or shot by an adored Milwaukee Bucks sharpshooter. 

“You see that?” one said in discussing the low, low scores. 

“It’s wild,” said the other. 

It was something, and something you don’t expect from golf’s biggest tournaments. On Tuesday, Scottie Scheffler, the World No. 1 and Masters champ, said the majors “have leaned into” trying to topple their participants. But when the golf balls went into the air during Thursday’s first round, the players pushed back. 

The evidence, according to the Elias Sports Bureau: 

— Xander Schauffele shot a nine-under 62 to lead. It tied the mark for lowest score in a major championship. It tied the lowest score relative to par in the first round of a major. It was the lowest score relative to par in the first round of a PGA Championship. It was the lowest raw score in the first round of a PGA Championship.

— Sixty-four players shot under par. The PGA Championship record for the highest number of sub-par opening rounds was 60, set in 2006 at Medinah Country Club.   

— Another 19 were at even par, meaning more than half of the field didn’t shoot over 71.

— Tom Kim, who will turn 22 this June, shot a 66. He is only the second player to shoot 66 or better in the opening round of a PGA Championship prior to his 22nd birthday, joining Sergio Garcia. 

— Jeremy Wells shot a 69. He is just the second club professional in the past 20 years to break 70 in the first round of the PGA Championship.

So what happened? What changed?

There was not one reason, the beneficiaries said. There were several. Together, it was a perfect storm, and the red numbers and circles reigned.

Was it the greens softened by storms earlier in the week here?

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Viktor Hovland thought so. Tony Finau thought so. So did Rory McIlroy, and it was especially so for the pros hardened by the harder greens they played on last week at the PGA Tour’s Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club. 

“You come to greens like this, second shots are easier. Chip shots are easier if you do miss the greens,” said McIlroy, who fired a five-under 66.  

“I think just the difference between last week in Charlotte and this week, it’s a big difference.”

Or maybe the low scoring was because the fairways were also softened. Finau thought that. 

“Yeah, the greens are soft, so it didn’t matter what clubs you were hitting into the greens; they were going to stop,” said Finau, who carded a six-under 65. “I thought whether it was a 5-iron, a wedge, a 9-iron. So whenever that’s the case, we don’t have to play for too much bounce, [and] I think you’re going to see a lot of guys hit the ball in areas where you can make putts. … 

“The golf course, the fairways are not bouncing too much, so you’re going to — guys are going to hit more fairways, and then the greens aren’t bouncing, so the guys are going to hit more greens. Whenever that’s the case, I think you’ve got scorable conditions, and I think you’ve seen that Xander, that nine-under is impressive no matter what. 

“But you can see something like that on a day like today.” 

Or maybe the low scoring was the result of the recently installed zoysia grass around the Valhalla greens. Hovland, who shot a three-under 68, thought so. “It’s easy to spin it around the greens,” he said. “You combine that with soft greens, it’s like you can miss some greens and still be able to get up-and-downs.”

He also thought the rough wasn’t “that penalizing.” Others also noted some balls would prop up in the grass made up of tall fescue and bluegrass; to be fair, though, others could advance only sideways. 

Or perhaps the low scoring was due to the zoysia also in the fairway. Brooks Koepka, the defending champion who shot a four-under 67, thought so. “Soft conditions, especially with the grass change, instead of having the bent, that zoysia make it a little bit easier, I think,” he said. 

Of course, these boys are also really freaking good. 

At least that’s what Robert MacIntyre thought. 

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“I mean, there was some serious storms the last kind of two nights,” he said after shooting a 66. “I seen last night before I went to bed, I was seeing — looked outside, and it was pouring rain, and the golf course is softer. 

“But I’m still shelling 4, 5-, 6-irons into a lot of par-4s. These guys are good. They’ve stretched the golf course as long as they can. It’s one of the longest golf courses I’ve ever played. Hopefully it’s one of the longest I’ll ever play. It’s just a solid golf course. 

“These guys are good.”

But not all were. Tiger Woods shot one-over. As did Ludvig Aberg. As did Adam Scott, Rickie Fowler and Tommy Fleetwood. Dustin Johnson, Joaquin Niemann and Sam Burns shot two-over. Phil Mickelson shot three-over. Michael Block, one of last year’s PGA Championship stars, shot five-over. 

They would have fit in most every other year. But not here. Not now. 

And it might not be done. 

“Yeah, the greens could get a little bit firmer,” McIlroy said, “so that could make it a little more tricky. But even if the fairways dry out, the zoysia, the ball doesn’t really go anywhere when it lands. 

“I could see it getting a touch firmer, but I still think it’s going to be pretty low scoring.”

Nick Piastowski

Golf.com Editor

Nick Piastowski is a Senior Editor at Golf.com and Golf Magazine. In his role, he is responsible for editing, writing and developing stories across the golf space. And when he’s not writing about ways to hit the golf ball farther and straighter, the Milwaukee native is probably playing the game, hitting the ball left, right and short, and drinking a cold beer to wash away his score. You can reach out to him about any of these topics — his stories, his game or his beers — at nick.piastowski@golf.com.

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