CHARLOTTE — The pace was inchworm in the opening round of the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, until they reached the slick greens. Then the action cranked up like an amusement park ride that gave the passengers whiplash. The ball didn’t roll across the putting surfaces so much as slide, and slide, and slide . . . and slide. Brooks Koepka stood like a chastened child, watching his putts run away from him. “You never really quite felt like the ball was ever going to stop,” he said.
The greens were so dangerous it was as if the entire field played under a caution flag. There were no sudden moves, just careful jockeying as the players tried to avoid a big crackup on this par-71, 7,588-yard layout of Piedmont pinestraw and humidity. U.S. Open champion Koepka’s 68 was what passed for high drama: He hit a marshal with a tee shot and bloodied the man’s head, made a chip-in birdie and holed a couple of slippery, trickling putts. “The greens are so fast, so delicate, you’re just worried about running it past,” he said. “It’s hard to feel like you can get aggressive on a putt.”
There was no such thing as a gimme: little 1½ -footers for par ran around the mouth and darted off four feet away. “If you just hit a putt a tiny bit off line, it exaggerated it,” said Rory McIlroy after his round of 1-over-par 72. It was an odd sight to see the most confident aggressors in the world, the Dustin Johnsons and Hideki Matsuyamas, so handcuffed that they were happy with scores of 70. “You need to be defensive on these greens,” Jordan Spieth said after his 72. “You have to.”
Quail Hollow is not exactly a memorably threatening golf course: The holes are uniformly tree-lined and bend gracefully, the ponds and creeks are dank but not exceptionally scary. It’s a still, heavy-aired, damp place, the fairways sodden and the Bermuda rough spongy underfoot with dew and humidity. The menace is almost entirely on its greens, which undulate with subtle slopes that suck the golf ball sideways from the hole at the last second. The pins were tucked on top of turtlebacks or on side-hills, or mounds with two and three degrees of slope. In addition to which, they were shaved close and rolled hard.
“With some of the pin locations, these greens are the fastest I’ve ever played,” Koepka said.
What looked like a pin-high birdie chance to the gallery was no such thing to the player who had to stand over the putt.
“The crowd goes, ‘Oh,’ but in our minds it’s really essentially a 20-footer,” Spieth said.
The result was scoring that was halting and hard to come by. If co-leader Thorbjorn Olesen’s 67 wasn’t exactly a fluke, it did come with a 27-foot birdie on the final hole that had a the-cup-got-in-the-way quality to it. For the most part, players who got too aggressive were punished for it, as was the case with the threesome of past PGA champions Phil Mickelson, Jimmy Walker and Jason Dufner, who had 18 bogeys and two double bogeys among them.
If Quail Hollow didn’t exactly demand playing it safe, it required patience and a certain acceptance. “Sometimes it’s a lot simpler than people think,” Koepka said. “. . . All I can say is, I try not to make double bogey. That’s kind of my goal. . . . I feel like, you know, it takes one hole to recover from a bogey and it takes two to come back from a double.”
Yet, the danger was falling too far behind, because it would be impossible to catch up given how hard it was to score. That was Spieth’s fear as he stood at 3 over with three holes to play. He had just suffered a pair of consecutive three-putts. Spieth is the most spectacular long-distance putter in the world, but he was baffled by the speed and twists of his putts all day.
But the 24-year-old British Open champion put together another of his classic finishes, the closest thing to a surge that was seen all day. He had begun his round on the 10th tee, which meant he had the front as his back nine, which gave him easier closing holes. As he stood on the seventh tee there was a slight backup and he had a couple of minutes to think about how grudging Quail Hollow had been all day. “We had a wait there, and I thought to myself they are not giving birdies at all,” he said. His caddie, Michael Greller, said to him, “Let’s get three looks and see what happens.”
Spieth gave himself those three looks. He reached the 543-yard, par-5 seventh in two with a soaring hybrid shot, and two putted. At the short par-4 eighth, he struck a 57-yard wedge to tap-in distance. He missed another long trickler at the ninth. “I almost got back all the way to even,” he said. If he hadn’t, “I may have thrown myself out of this,” Spieth said.
For those who survived the greens and remained in contention, there was no relief in sight.
“The thing is, they are only going to get faster and firmer,” Koepka said. And that means more golf balls sliding away.