PITTSFORD, N.Y. — Former major champions dotted the top of the leaderboard, but PGA Tour rookie Eric Cole stole past them all at twilight.
Cole held the lead at 5 under par through 14 holes, one stroke over Bryson DeChambeau, when the horn sounded in the first round of the PGA Championship on Thursday night at Oak Hill Country Club.
Thursday’s tee times were pushed back by one hour and 50 minutes due to an early morning frost delay, and 11 groups were still on the course when play was suspended due to darkness. Now the first round will be completed starting Friday at 7 a.m. before the second round can begin.
DeChambeau was the leader in the clubhouse at 4-under 66. Dustin Johnson, Scottie Scheffler and Corey Conners were tied two behind at 3-under 67, while Keegan Bradley, New Zealand’s Ryan Fox, Australia’s Adam Scott and Norway’s Viktor Hovland were at 2-under 68.
Cole, 34, earned his PGA Tour card last fall after years of grinding on developmental tours. It was just his second major start, and after starting on the back nine, a string of three birdies at Nos. 2-4 shot him past DeChambeau and company.
After sinking a 13-foot birdie putt at the par-3 third to reach 4 under, he became the only player to touch 5 under when he tapped in for birdie at the par-4 fourth.
Cole was pleased to see where he stood after one day.
“Whenever you play, you want to compete to win,” he said. “That’s the spot I like to see my name at and, hopefully, it is there more often.”
DeChambeau started his round on the back nine and was 1 under when he reached the par-4 17th hole. His drive took a right turn and reached the 18th tee box, bouncing off Kenny Pigman, one of 20 PGA teaching professionals in the field. DeChambeau headed over to check on Pigman and apologize.
“If you’re driving it well and hitting your irons well, you can play out here, but it can get pretty nasty pretty quick if you’re not hitting it straight,” DeChambeau said.
The 2020 U.S. Open champion made bogey but responded with birdies at Nos. 18, 1 and 4. He and Bradley, playing in the same group, moved to 4 under when they each birdied the par-4 sixth, but Bradley bogeyed two of his last three holes to drop back.
DeChambeau — now with LIV Golf and slimmed down after a muscle-building phase — didn’t lose club speed. He did what he does best, ranking among the leaders in driving distance at an average of 347 yards.
“I lost 18 pounds in 24 days. It was crazy,” DeChambeau said. “It wasn’t fat. It was all water weight. You know how I looked before. I was not skinny. So a lot of changes in that regard.”
Johnson opted to finish the 18th hole after the horn sounded and wound up making his only bogey of the day in the dark. Scott had it worse than that just before him, failing to get out of a greenside bunker on his first try and carding a double bogey at No. 18.
Scheffler, the 2022 Masters champion and World No. 2, notched the first bogey-free round at a major of his young but bright career. He sank 15-footers for birdie at the par-4 14th and the par-3 fifth holes. Then he stuck his approach shot at his penultimate hole 3 feet from the cup and tapped in for his third birdie of the day.
“This place is pretty tough,” Scheffler said. “I came into (Thursday’s) round just trying to play solid golf. I kept the course in front of me for the most part and hit some really good tee shots on the important holes. Then I had some nice saves as well.”
Conners poured in six birdies, three on the front nine and three on the back. His 30-foot putt at the par-3 15th briefly gave him sole possession of the lead at 4 under before he bogeyed his next hole.
Fox has not competed since the Masters more than a month ago, but he had some good reasons. After withdrawing from the RBC Heritage the week after the Masters, the 36-year-old was diagnosed with pneumonia.
“Took me two weeks at home to get over that, and just after that happened our second daughter was born, little Margot,” Fox said on the ESPN broadcast. “… I spent most of my time being Dad and not a whole lot of time on the golf course. So I worked pretty hard the first three days (of practice rounds) to try to find something, and pretty happy to find something today.”
Kazuki Higa, a 28-year-old from Japan, began his day on the back nine and birdied Nos. 11-14 to separate from the pack early. His morning lead was short-lived, as he carded a double bogey followed by three bogeys to finish at 2-over 72.
Oak Hill stymied some of best golfers in the world. Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland was 3 over through nine holes before rallying to card a 1-over 71. Collin Morikawa also shot 71, defending champion Justin Thomas signed for a 72 and Cameron Smith of Australia shot 72.
World No. 1 Jon Rahm of Spain posted a surprising 6-over 76. After opening with a birdie at No. 10, he overshot some greens and bogeyed five times in a six-hole stretch from No. 16 to No. 3. Rahm missed three putts from 5 feet or shorter during his second nine, one leading to a double bogey.
–By Adam Zielonka, Field Level Media