PGA Championship 2018

Getting a grip on his struggles

Gary Woodland is the fourth best driver on the PGA Tour this year but his chipping and putting have never matched his long game.
Gary Woodland is the fourth best driver on the PGA Tour this year but his chipping and putting have never matched his long game.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Nearly man Woodland soars to lead after sorting out putting woes; Fowler a shot adrift

ST LOUIS (Missouri) • Gary Woodland is frustrated with a record of Major futility and trying on United States team uniforms for fittings only to be left off the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup roster.

But all that might be about to change for the 34-year-old because he got a new grip on his putter and soared to the first-round lead at the 100th PGA Championship on Thursday.

Woodland sank seven birdies in a 10-hole stretch at Bellerive Country Club, dropping a career-best 153 feet of putts in all, to fire a six-under 64 and lead fellow American Rickie Fowler by a stroke.

He barely missed an 18-foot birdie putt at the 18th to match the lowest round in PGA Championship history. Woodland's best result in any of his 27 Major starts was joint-12th at the 2011 PGA Championship and 2016 British Open.

"Definitely in the Majors, it's frustrating," the world No. 44 said. "I don't even have a top 10, which is frustrating because I feel like where I am and where I should be is not results that I have had."

He is the fourth best driver on the PGA Tour this year using a metric that takes into account both distance and accuracy, but his chipping and putting have never matched his long game, hence his inability to post a top-10 finish in a Major.

That, however, was before a breakthrough talk with putting coach Phil Kenyon at the British Open and switching to a SuperStroke grip on his putter.

  • LEADERBOARD

  • 1ST ROUND (selected, USA unless stated)

  • 64 Gary Woodland

  • 65 Rickie Fowler

  • 66 Zach Johnson, Brandon Stone (Rsa)

  • 67 Stewart Cink, Austin Cook, Brian Gay, Dustin Johnson, Kevin Kisner, Pat Perez, Ollie Schniederjans, Jason Day (Aus), Thomas Pieters (Bel), Ian Poulter (Eng), Justin Rose (Eng)

  • 68 Yuta Ikeda (Jpn), Marc Leishman (Aus), Hideki Matsuyama (Jpn), Francesco Molinari (Ita), Jon Rahm (Esp)

  • 69 Tommy Fleetwood (Eng), Justin Thomas

  • 70 An Byeong-hun (Kor), Sergio Garcia (Esp), Rory McIlroy (Nir), Xander Schauffele, Bubba Watson, Tiger Woods

  • 71 Li Haotong (Chn), Alex Noren (Swe), Jordan Spieth

  • 72 Patrick Reed

  • 73 John Daly, Phil Mickelson, Danny Willett (Eng)

  • 75 Kiradech Aphibarnrat (Tha)

    REUTERS

Woodland said: "The short game has really held me back. I hit the ball beautifully, but to contend week in, week out, I have to get better in those areas. And it's been coming together. The putting was the last thing, because I've been hitting the ball very well.

"Now when I get out of position, I have the short game to give myself a chance, and to see putts go in today was very, very cool."

Among his birdie putts were a 44-footer at No. 11 and 23-footers at No. 12 and the par-three 16th.

He was not measuring himself for a Ryder Cup outfit just yet, even though the Americans defend the trophy next month in France. But he has not given up a trip to Paris, either by winning this week to qualify on points or earning a pick from US captain Jim Furyk.

"I've been in the fitting for the last seven years for all the Ryder and Presidents Cups," Woodland said. "I tried all the clothes on. I've seen them all and I've just never had a chance to make the team. Last year was probably as close as I came and that's frustrating."

Ninth-ranked Fowler understands disappointment. Widely regarded as one of the best players yet to bag a Major, he has come close, posting top-five results in all four Majors, including second at the Masters in April.

The flamboyant American burst onto the scene as a 20-year-old, instantly identifiable by his fluorescent kit that attracted the young fan demographic the golf industry coveted. The electric yellow and orange outfits have been largely replaced but the objective remains unchanged with this PGA Championship representing his last shot at claiming a Major before entering his 30s in December.

"I always have hope," Fowler said. "I know Phil (Mickelson) didn't win until his 30s. I don't know the exact numbers, but it's not something I necessarily worry about.

"Keep putting ourselves in position, get in contention, we have had plenty of runners-up, Jack (Nicklaus) had a lot of runners-up, we'll just keep beating down that door."

A stroke adrift of him on 66 were compatriot Zach Johnson and South African Brandon Stone.

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson, Australian Jason Day, the 2015 PGA Championship winner, Briton Justin Rose, the 2013 US Open winner and Stewart Cink, the 2009 British Open champion, were among a group of 11 players on 67.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2018, with the headline 'Getting a grip on his struggles'. Print Edition | Subscribe