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Koepka seizes command with 63 at PGA while Tiger struggles

AFP

Bethpage (United States) (AFP) -

Defending champion Brooks Koepka fired a bogey-free seven-under par 63 to seize a one-stroke clubhouse lead in Thursday's opening round of the PGA Championship while Tiger Woods struggled.

Third-ranked Koepka, seeking his fourth major title, closed with a 33-foot birdie putt at Bethpage Black's ninth hole to set a course record and match the lowest round in tournament history.

It was the second 63 in as many years at a PGA Championship for the 29-year-old American, who joined Australian Greg Norman and Fiji's Vijay Singh as the only players to shoot so low twice in majors.

"That was one of the best rounds I've played probably as a professional," said Koepka, who turned pro in 2012.

"My putter was hot today. It hasn't felt that good in a long time. This was a crazy day, seven-under, it's not going to happen every day."

New Zealand's Danny Lee, among the first afternoon starters to finish, made seven birdies to shoot a 64 and closed with back-to-back birdies to grab second in the clubhouse.

"My game was very good today," Lee said.

Tommy Fleetwood, trying to become the first Englishman to win the PGA since Jim Barnes in 1919, shot 67 to stand third, one stroke ahead of France's Mike Lorenzo-Vera and Americans Luke List and Chez Reavie.

Koepka edged Fleetwood by one stroke to win last year's US Open at Shinnecock, only 60 miles (96km) east of Bethpage Black.

Both Koepka and playing partner Woods said his round could have been the best in major history, surpassing the 62 fired by South Africa's Branden Grace at Royal Birkdale in the 2017 British Open.

"I parred both par-5s and missed a couple of eight-footers for birdie," Koepka said. "It could have been a hell of a round."

Koepka, who began on the back nine, holed a 40-foot birdie putt at 10 and sank a 20-foot birdie putt at the par-3 14th.

He charged with four birdies in six holes before sinking a 10-footer to save par at the sixth ahead of his closing heroics.

"He played well," Woods said. "That was probably the highest score he could have shot out there. He left a few out there. He could easily have been a couple better.

"I wasn't as close as I would have liked to have been for sure."

- Nightmare for Tiger -

Sixth-ranked Woods, coming off his stunning 15th major victory in last month's Masters, endured a nightmare day, signing for a two-over 72, after snapping an 11-year major drought 33 days ago in his prior competitive round.

On the same course where he won the 2002 US Open, Woods opened with a double bogey at 10 after finding rough, laying up and blasting over the green. He answered with a birdie at 15 but double-bogeyed the par-3 17th after finding sand off the tee.

"The golf course is playing tough," Woods said. "It's not that hard to make bogeys out there but it's hard to make birdies."

Woods fought back with birdies at the first and second holes, then curled in a 30-foot eagle putt to make the crowd roar.

But par misses from inside 10 feet at the fifth, seventh and the par-3 eighth doomed his fightback.

"Fought my way back and got it under par for the day," Woods said. "Let it slip with a couple of mistakes and a couple of bad putts at the end."

A victory would match Woods with Sam Snead for the all-time record of 82 US PGA Tour titles and move him two shy of the major record of 18 held by Jack Nicklaus -- as well as put him halfway to a calendar Grand Slam for the first time since 2002.

- Daly carts around PGA -

It was the first PGA Championship played in May since 1949, moving from August this year in a revamp of the global golf schedule.

American John Daly, hampered by right knee arthritis, used a cart after an appeal under the Americans with Disabilities Act. He's the first player to use a cart in a major since Casey Martin at the 2012 US Open.

Koepka, who seeks a third consecutive US Open title next month at Pebble Beach, could overtake Dustin Johnson for the world number one ranking with a victory and would become the first golfer to own back-to-back titles at two majors simultaneously.