KIAWAH ISLAND — The most difficult golf course in the United States? Not on this day.
The vaunted 7,676-yard Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Resort, dubbed the toughest course in the U.S. by Golf Digest, played about as docile as it could Thursday and the world’s top players took advantage in the first round of the 94th PGA Championship.
Calm conditions in the morning and only mild wind until late afternoon allowed players to maximize receptive greens softened by early-week rain, as 65 players shot par or better. “If there’s no wind, it’s not that difficult,” said 2011 Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, who carded a 2-under 70.
Carl Pettersson preyed on the vulnerable course the most with a 6-under 66 and has a one-shot lead over 2011 U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, Gary Woodland, Alex Noren of Sweden and Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano of Spain.
Several of the world’s top-ranked golfers are among eight players tied for sixth and two back after 68s including major champions Graeme McDowell, Geoff Ogilvy and defending PGA champion Keegan Bradley. Adam Scott, who is seeking a quick rebound from his four-hole collapse at the British Open three weeks ago, and John Daly are also among them.
Fourteen-time major winner Tiger Woods is one of 11 players in a tie for 14th at 69. “I played well today and anything in the 60s is going to be a good start in a major championship, so I’m right there,” Woods said.
Pettersson, a Swedish native and Raleigh, N.C., resident who attended N.C. State, won his fifth PGA Tour title in April at the RBC Heritage in Hilton Head Island. A tie for 24th in 2010 is his best finish in seven previous PGA Championship appearances, and the 66 is his first round in the 60s in the event.
The 34-year-old has a mediocre record in majors, having recorded two top-10s and 10 missed cuts. He shared a lead after a 67 in the first round of the 2002 British Open at Muirfield, but tied for 43rd.
He’d like to become the 17th different player in a row to claim one of golf’s grand slam titles.
“Obviously you see different people, some of your friends, winning majors, some of the guys you know really well,” Pettersson said. “It motivates you. You think if they can do it, you can kind of see yourself doing it. I haven’t contended that much in majors. But I’d love to have a chance and see what happens.”
Pettersson, who became a U.S. citizen in January, birdied four of the first seven holes to quickly get to 4 under, and birdied holes 10 and 16 on the back nine while managing to avoid a bogey.
“Every major the golf courses are set up very difficult, so I think if you don’t come in with you’re A-game it’s very difficult to score,” Pettersson said. “You have to be on the whole week because of the setup of the golf courses, and I guess I haven’t done that enough. Maybe I needed a little bit more experience of playing tougher golf courses, and I feel like I do that fairly well nowadays, so hopefully I can contend more.”
McIlroy certainly knows what it’s like to close out a major, having won last year’s U.S. Open at Congressional by eight strokes. He hit a mid-season swoon this year with three missed cuts in four PGA Tour events, but tied for fifth last week in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
He also played bogey-free Thursday. “I definitely think that last week gave me a good bit of confidence, and that was something I could take into here,” McIlroy said. “It’s a great way to start the tournament. You know, hitting balls on the range this morning there was completely no wind. It was flat calm and I really thought that I had to take advantage of the conditions. … It’s a great round to build on.”
Joost Luiten of the Netherlands reached 8 under with a hot putter in his first PGA and was threatening Alex Cjeka’s competitive course record of 63 set in the 1997 World Cup, but Luiten closed with four consecutive bogeys and is among those tied for sixth at 68.
“I played really well and then to finish the round with four straight bogeys is not a good feeling,” Luiten said. “… You can’t deny that you get nervous when you start playing so well in a major and take a big lead, but I was just a little too aggressive with my putts on [Nos.] 6 and 7. I was in the birdie mode and when you are thinking like that all you want to do is try and make more birdies.
“And then I just hit two iron shots in the wrong spots on the eighth and ninth and you make bogeys when you do that on a golf course like this.”
The morning wave Friday may have another chance to catch a susceptible course before winds are expected to increase in the afternoon and into Saturday, with gusts up to 30 mph.
“I feel like that’s probably going to be a good practice round, if you like, for the rest of the week,” said Justin Rose of his 69 Thursday. “The wind came up this afternoon, and it’s probably going to be more of the same tomorrow [Friday].”
Contact ALAN BLONDIN at 626-0284.