Rory McIlroy was hesitant to return to the Kiawah Island Ocean Course as Brooks Koepka was among those who set the tone early at the PGA U.S. Championship.
McIlroy won the last time the event was held at the South Carolina venue in 2012, but signed for a hat-trick of over 75.
Former world number one Koepka shares the lead at three under par alongside Keegan Bradley and Viktor Hovland.
Scotland’s Martin Laird took the lead heading towards the 17th tee, but has carded successive bogeys and is seated in the back.
World number one Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, chasing the Grand Slam, and England’s Tommy Fleetwood and Justin Rose are among the latecomers on a blustery opening day.
Koepka said ahead of the tournament that he was up to six months of fitness after surgery on March 16 to deal with a kneecap dislocation and ligament damage.
This seemed to ring true when the four-time major champion made a double start, but he immediately pulled out one of those shots and more birdies on either side of a bogey saw the American hitting the turn at normal level.
The 31-year-old, who won the event in 2018 and 2019, added three birdies on his nine back to join Hovland at the top of the clubhouse.
Another former champion, Bradley, won his only major in the PGA Championship ten years ago and saw only one flaw on a card that included four birdies as he signed for a 69.
Norway’s Hovland is the youngest in the leading pack and the only one of the trio without a major to his name, but the 23-year-old canceled an opening bogey with a birdie in the second and added three more in one lap formidable. .
Defending champion Collin Morikawa looked set to tie a four at the top, but bugged his last hole.
British contingent in contention
Scotland’s Laird strung four back-to-back birdies to lead to four-under with two to go, but back-to-back bogeys saw the 38-year-old enter the clubhouse at two-under.
Paul Casey was also rebuilding a promising round as he went down to three under, but the Englishman was caught by a bogey-bogey finish to end the first day below par.
“I would have taken one at the start of the day because it is one of the most difficult golf courses I have ever played. He has my respect, ”Casey said.
“They are one of the best [putting] surfaces that we have experienced in major championship golf, they are unbelievably true. The ball does not deflect, they barely leave a mark. “
Fellow Tyrrell Hatton hit his last hole, the ninth, to also finish one under after a round that included four birdies and three bogeys.
McIlroy fights to stay in the hunt
Northern Ireland McIlroy started with a bogey in the 10th after fleeing his first drive into the water, but followed with successive birdies, and was not fortunate enough to see an eagle putt plow. He hit the turn at normal level after another shot fell on the 16th par five from 608 yards.
McIlroy won here the last time Kiawah Island hosted the event, but said he didn’t think it would give him an advantage nine years later.
He arrived in South Carolina as a favorite, however, after ending a 19-month winless streak with a win at Quail Hollow two weeks ago and apparently fixing his swing issues after signing the ‘Coach Pete Cowen.
Back-to-back bogeys followed after the turn and another five, his 14th, saw the 32-year-old slip three above par before sinking a 12-foot birdie putt on the next.
But there were other issues for McIlroy as his training on the par five sixth found a long clump of grass in one of the wasteland to the left and resulted in another drop shot as he closed for a 75.
US Open grand champion Bryson DeChambeau, who said he plans to ‘free the beast’ in a bid to tame the longest course in major championship history, stammered around the turn with four successive bogeys after doubling to two under three holes.
The world number five traded a birdie and a bogey after the turn, but managed two birdies on his way to a par 72 level and sit three strokes off the pace.