Ben Coley reflects on the first round of the PGA Championship and reveals his best bet for Friday's action.
This definitely isn't major
Day one of the PGA Championship had lots of things, but it didn't have that thing. It just didn't feel important enough, undermined here by the absence of television coverage, undermined there by conditions. When Rickie Fowler moved into a tie for first with defending champion Justin Thomas early on... meh.
Bellerive was remarkably soft for a course whose greens have a sub-air system, and that meant for a lack of texture: this was golf in one dimension. Balls were stopping right where they landed and it became an exercise in finding the fairway, controlling spin, and hitting your putt hard enough. In 80 per cent humidity, players were not always able to tick all four boxes.
Round one leaders
-6 Gary Woodland
-5 Rickie Fowler
-4 Brandon Stone, Zach Johnson
Selected others: -3 Jason Day, Ian Poulter, Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose; -2 Jon Rahm, Webb Simpson, Francesco Molinari; -1 Justin Thomas, Tommy Fleetwood, Brooks Koepka; E Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia; +1 Jordan Spieth; +2 Patrick Reed; +3 Phil Mickelson
Golf is at its best when decisions are required. Here, that process was absent - four-iron or five-wood isn't decision-making, not really - and while you can't change the weather, you can choose the golf course. I saw nothing that would make this place spectacular, if that is what we should expect from a major venue. We could have been watching any PGA Tour event, but for one notable difference: it wasn't actually on television.
How we got here, I don't really know. Presumably, owners of the TV rights pushed Sky Sports too far, and with the fourth major of the season clashing with the return of the Premier League, that meant 'the home of major golf' once again failed to offer the full complement of major golf tournaments.
Sports fans in the United Kingdom are being taken for a ride. It is absurdly expensive to buy the full Sky Sports package as it is, but of course if you are an all-sports fan, that's not the end of it. Monopolisation is not a good thing, broadly speaking, but in sport it's easy to feel like things have become worse since BT Sport's emergence, whatever you think of their coverage. Certainly, they've become more expensive. It's hard not to wonder why subscriptions haven't gone down as the individual products themselves have been diluted.
For the UK golf fan, there are fantastic opportunities to watch and engage in live sport, but the are being offered at too high a price. The R&A's no readmission policy at The Open this year was damaging to both local business and fans and, three weeks later, many of that same group were watching jumpy footage of the PGA Championship on Facebook, made worse by the fact that this came days after Georgia Hall had won the Women's British Open. This was a fine opportunity to further inspire youngsters, but it's difficult to imagine families crowding around an iPhone on Sunday night.
My experience of the Eleven Sports online feed was somewhat positive, in that their stream did not crash, nor did it even jump, but it was a long way off real-time and that just isn't good enough. And to say that someone should own a smart TV, or get a faster broadband connection, is to miss the point. In fact it's precisely the type of attitude which golf as a sport could do with shedding.
Eleven Sports put together a reasonable broadcast at, presumably, fairly short notice. They tried to colour it with things others don't do, although, as BT Sport have found, there is a reason these things aren't done. We gained little from the man who keeps on an eye on the weather explaining that process. More golf, please, and back on the TV if you wouldn't mind.
"We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive."
Do you know who said that? C.S. Lewis. And people said he was just an author of children's books.
It definitely was Thursday
There's a difference between being impressed, even mesmerised, at play like Dustin Johnson's, and handing him another major on Thursday - before he's even signed his scorecard. As Johnson threatened to match Rickie Fowler's 65, a score later bettered by Gary Woodland, there was far too much of the latter.
Reminder: Dustin Johnson has won one major. One. That's only one more than Fowler, who according to some analysts is entrenched in a battle not to become the next Lee Westwood or Colin Montgomerie, despite being just 29 years old.
Johnson is prolific - far more so than Fowler - by every measure bar major championships. Often, he's been unfortunate. Sometimes, he's been a bit, well, thick. On some other occasions someone has played a little better, and on one famous occasion... I'm still not sure what happened at Chambers Bay. Except that he didn't win.
Two other notes before we hand him a second major championship. One, he was away and gone in the US Open this summer, yet was beaten fairly early on in the final round. Two, not only is the leaderboard bunched, but it's decorated by world-class players. Even if you've concerns around Fowler's ability to sustain his effort to the 72nd hole, how will Jason Day and Justin Rose do?
Hold on, make that three notes - he's just bogeyed two holes in three approaching the end of the first round. Bellerive may not be spectacular, but it seems clear that disaster lurks on each and every hole. There is a long way to go and it is by no means certain that Johnson finds his way back to the top of the leaderboard at any stage this week, let alone when it matters most.
Where the wild things aren't
The PGA is the final event in the battle for an automatic place on the US Ryder Cup side. It is also a hugely important week for those aiming to represent Europe, arguably the last chance saloon in fact for Frenchman Alex Levy, who looked primed to make the side in the spring but, after a 76 here, is surely a lost cause.
In the morning, all eyes were on Tony Finau and Xander Schauffele, grouped with US captain Jim Furyk who claimed to have had no part in this apparent coincidence. Both men appeared to be affected: Finau shot 74 to ensure that he'll need something special to keep alive his sequence of major top-10s, while Schauffele fought back from a slow start to at least shoot level, still a shot more than Furyk.
I wonder how much will depend on Friday's round when it comes to wild card selections, with both Finau and Schauffele likely to come up short in terms of qualifying automatically. Perhaps Schauffele's fightback, not to mention his more impressive CV, has put him ahead of Finau in what could be a private battle.
Might the same also apply to Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson? Might Woods' hard-fought 70 ensure that he remains in favour, while Mickelson's 73 could even place him in jeopardy? It seems unlikely that the left-hander will be overlooked, but Furyk, no doubt, will want to see more in the second round.
Unsurprisingly, while all this was happening it was Zach Johnson who delivered. Scarcely mentioned as an option despite being an excellent Ryder Cup player, a two-time major champion and with a game which not only travels but is ideal for Le Golf National, he maintained what's been a solid summer's form to shake things up a little.
Johnson, whose ability to grind out a point in Sunday singles could prove invaluable, would strengthen the US team considerably. It's less certain, for all their impressive achievements throughout 2018, that those two rookies would.
As for Europe, Thorbjorn Olesen, Sergio Garcia, Paul Casey, Matt Fitzpatrick, Henrik Stenson and Russell Knox all struggled to some extent. There's time yet for things to change - this was, after all, one round of golf - but the latter in particular appears to be in trouble while Stenson's health may be a greater concern than Garcia's form for captain Thomas Bjorn.
When Knox missed out in 2016, it was at the hand of Thomas Pieters. The Belgian has found some kind of form lately, towards the end of the first round of the PGA Championship a key part of the European charge along with Ian Poulter.
We know that the latter will feature, but it won't take much more from Pieters for memories of his Hazeltine heroics to come flooding back.
Justin Rose's US Open win came after a horror start in the first round, and he's far from alone. Brooks Koepka's second success, five years on from Rose's, was also a triumph for patience and perseverance. He appeared as if from nowhere on Friday, when fighting back from seven-over and by Sunday, he was toughing it out to beat a seriously challenging clubhouse target.
We've come to expect it of Rose, who missed 21 cuts in a row at the start of his professional career, but Koepka? Perhaps not before Shinnecock, but after he again clawed his way back from an early double-bogey here in Missouri, the Floridian is perhaps on his way to another fine major performance, another that came courtesy of a refusal to be beaten.
Others who fought back on Thursday include Open champion Francesco Molinari and England's Tommy Fleetwood. It's always hard to know what formula will work on any given week, especially on a returning golf course like Bellerive, but that ability to keep grinding is huge.
Fish out some value
And finally, the best bet from Friday afternoon's three-balls is Ross Fisher to beat Patton Kizzire and Alex Levy, priced at a generous 6/4 with Ladbrokes and Coral, with the industry-low 10/11 from Unibet a far more accurate representation of the Englishman's prospects.
Fisher dominated this match on Thursday, beating Kizzire by four and Levy by eight. He did so despite a couple of sloppy errors with the putter, confirming that a long, soft course is ideal for a player whose strength is driving and whose ball-flight is among the highest in the field.
Levy is out of form and so too is Kizzire, who since winning in Hawaii in January has managed just one top-25 finish - and that was in March. Levy did manage 13th in Germany last time out but that was in poor company on a course he loves and he got worse as the first round progressed here.
Fisher has shots in hand on Thursday's form and appears by far the most likely of the trio to improve.
Posted at 0010 BST on 10/08/18