SAN FRANCISCO >> Jason Day took his first step toward a return to the spotlight in the majors today at the PGA Championship.
Brooks Koepka never seems to leave.
Day took advantage of a TPC Harding Park that never felt this accommodating during the practice rounds. With only a mild breeze and a welcome appearance by the sunshine, he finished his bogey-free round of 5-under 65 with an approach to 6 feet for birdie on No. 9, the toughest hole on the course at 518 yards.
That allowed him to break out of a large pack one shot behind, a group that included major champions from years gone by, a PGA Tour rookie and the one guy — Koepka — who shows up at every major no matter what kind of shape his game is in.
Koepka is the two-time defending champion, presented the opportunity this week to become only the seventh player in the 160-year history of major championship golf to win the same major three years in a row. It was last done 64 years ago.
He’s still a little annoyed that he missed a similar chance last year down the Pacific coast at Pebble Beach, when he finished runner-up in his bid for a third straight U.S. Open.
He hasn’t won in more than a year. His left knee has been bothering him since last August. No matter. After a slow start, Koepka powered his way six birdies and made a series of key putts for par — and one 12-footer for bogey — that gave him an ideal start to this major.
He was at 66 with eight other players, a list that included former major winners Justin Rose, Martin Kaymer and Zach Johnson, rising star Xander Schauffele and tour rookie Scottie Scheffler.
“It’s only 18 holes right now,” Koepka said. “I feel good. I feel confident. I’m excited for the next three days. I think I can definitely play a lot better. Just need to tidy a few things up, and we’ll be there come Sunday on the back nine.”
Tiger Woods ran off three birdies in a four-hole stretch toward the end of his round that offset a few mistakes in his round of 68, a solid start for a 15-time major champion who has played just one tournament in the last six months.
Woods put a new putter into play — this one is a little longer, which he says helps him practice longer without straining his surgically repaired back — and it came in handy. He made a 30-foot birdie early. He was most pleased with a 20-foot par putt on No. 18 as he made the turn. And he was thrilled with the weather.
“I thought anything today in the red was going to be good,” Woods said.
Instead of the wind and chill and the thick marine layer, it was pleasant enough to make this feel like a casual round of golf.
It sounded like that, too.
Woods is used to tournament golf in the COVID-19 era. Spectators have not been allowed at any tournament since the PGA Tour returned two months ago. So that was nothing new. Still, there was a starter speaking into a microphone on the first tee, and he stuck with the tradition when introducing past PGA champions. Woods has won it four times.
“It still funny,” Rory McIlroy said. “You know, ‘99, 2000, 2006, 2007 PGA champion, Tiger Woods. And then there’s nothing. That’s pretty interesting. That’s definitely different.”
McIlroy, Woods and Justin Thomas, the No. 1 player in the world, each started with a birdie on No. 10 to no applause. They still had the largest following in two months, some 60 people — reporters, photographers, camera crews, a few park rangers. And there were fans along the road beyond the fence on the 12th hole shouting for Woods.
McIlroy overcame three straight bogeys early in his round for an even-par 70. Thomas was going along fine until a pair of double bogeys, one on the seventh hole when his ball never came down from a Monterey Cypress tree. He shot 71.
Thirty-one players managed to break par from the morning group. Bryson DeChambeau and Jon Rahm were among those playing in the afternoon as the wind began to increasing, making the start of Day — and Koepka — look even better.
It was a good sign for Day, the former No. 1 player in the world, because he has struggled so much since his last win two years ago. His back gives him trouble. Off the course, his mother was battling lung cancer in Australia. And then he finally made a clean break from his longtime coach and lifetime mentor, Collin Swatton.
But he registered three top 10s coming into the PGA Championship, and his confidence is growing.
Ditto for Koepka. He missed the cut at the 3M Open in Minnesota two weeks ago, went home to Florida and during one range session was so frustrated he heaved a few clubs. But a quick video review and some technical work revealed his weight was on the wrong side. He made the adjustment and tied for second last week at a World Golf Championship.
And this is a major. Big Game Brooks is at his best in these.
“He seems to find his comfort zone in these tournaments, in these environments, for whatever reason that is,” McIlroy said. “I think we are all just lucky that he doesn’t find it every other week.”