SHEBOYGAN, Wis. -- Bolstered by four birdies on the back nine, Russell Henley is among the leaders at the PGA Championship following Thursday’s first round.
A 4-under-par 68 puts Macon’s Henley in a tie for third place, two shots behind Dustin Johnson and one shot in back of David Lingmerth.
After playing the front nine in even-par 36 with a birdie and a bogey, Henley went on a run after the turn. He came up with consecutive birdies on 10, 11 and 12, making a 14-foot putt on 10 and a 15-footer on 12. Later, he made a 21-foot putt for birdie on the par-5 16th.
Henley is tied with seven other golfers, including Matt Kuchar, Harris English and Jason Day.
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Familiarity of the final major of the year came from Johnson. Bouncing back from a summer of disappointment, Johnson breezed his way to a 6-under 66 in moderate morning conditions at Whistling Straits.
“We’ll just have to see what happens,” Johnson said. “It’s only the first round. We’ve still got a lot of golf to play.”
Meanwhile, Rory McIlroy rolled up the right leg of his pants to take on a risky shot out of the water. Jordan Spieth, who seems to never miss putts, couldn’t make one.
For the top two players in golf, McIlroy (No. 1) and Spieth (No. 2), Round 1 was a draw.
Both shot 71, a reasonable start considering the blustery conditions off Lake Michigan.
McIlroy, competing for the first time in 53 days because of an ankle injury, handled all of the par 5s even though one was just a par. But it was a big one. He pulled his third shot into the water and a double-bogey looked likely. But his ball was sitting up in the water, so McIlroy rolled up his pant leg, splashed it out to 7 feet and saved par.
“The only thing I was trying not to do was get my feet wet,” McIlroy said. “Because if the water gets through this shoe, then the tape gets wet and then that would be a little more than just sort of annoying or uncomfortable for the rest of the day. But it was fine. It was a little bit deeper on the right side, so I just rolled my right trouser leg up and it was fine. I just had to remember to hit it hard. And I was very fortunate to escape with a par there.”
That shot made for good TV. Good for his soul was getting that first tee shot out of the way, and especially the 3-wood he hit pure as ever onto the green at the par-5 second that led to birdie.
“That was full bore, as good as I can do,” McIlroy said.
Spieth was far more boring in opening with 10 pars, and he was far more irritated. The Masters and U.S. Open champion had one birdie chance after another on the front nine and missed them all, trying to get the speed right and wondering how much the wind would affect it.
“I guessed wrong,” he said.
And then he started to press, and it nearly cost him. He wasted an easy birdie chance on the short 10th hole by chipping 12 feet by the hole. He three-putted from about 15 feet on the par-5 11th for a bogey. After going just long of the par-3 12th, he had to play a chip because of a sprinkler head in his line.
The chip came out hot, and Spieth figured it would have gone some 12 feet by the hole. Spieth said he was pleading it for it to hit the pin, if nothing else to keep it near the hole. It hit straight on and dropped for a birdie he badly needed.
“We really battled back after 10 and 11, which were disappointing holes for me, to salvage an under par round really stay in this tournament,” Spieth said. “If I didn’t get that good break on 12, it could have been a different story the rest of the round.”
The wind began to blow hard over the final hour of Johnson’s round, and it showed in the scores. Of the 14 players who broke 70, Lingmerth and Scott Piercy (68) were the only ones who faced the tougher afternoon conditions.
Lingmerth also got off to a roaring start at the British Open with a 29 on the front nine (and a 40 on the back). Starting on the back nine, which was the easier at Whistling Straits, he hit a pure iron into the par-3 17th and had a good look at birdie to reach 6 under. He couldn’t help but think of St. Andrews.
“It did cross my mind, but that was it,” Lingmerth said.
He missed the putt, briefly tied Johnson with a birdie on the par-5 fifth hole, gave it back on the next hole and closed with pars.
Tiger Woods might be one day away from the end of his season. Woods managed only two birdies, both on the par 5s, in the calmer conditions and never looked good with the putter in opening with a 75. In the four majors this year, he is 18-over par in the opening round with a scoring average of 76.
Johnson took three putts from 12 feet on the final hole at the U.S. Open to swiftly and shockingly go from a chance to win to a runner-up finish behind Spieth. He had the 36-hole lead at St. Andrews until he disappeared on the weekend. His confidence, however, does not appear shaken.
“(thursday) was pretty easy, I would have to say,” Johnson said. “But I was swinging well and I was hitting the shots where I was looking. So anytime you’re doing that, it makes things a lot easier on you. The ball was going where I was looking. I was controlling it. In this wind it’s tough to do, but I did a great job of controlling the golf ball (Thursday).”
Telegraph writer Ron Seibel contributed to this report from Macon.