PITTSFORD, N.Y.: Matt Kuchar knows how it feels to make clutch birdies at Oak Hill.
And to be outdone by another player.
Fifteen years ago, he lost a classic match-play duel to then-teen sensation Sergio Garcia in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur on the course that’s hosting this week’s PGA Championship.
Garcia won 2 and 1 that day in 1998, when Kuchar was the defending champion. There were seven hole-winning birdies in the match.
“Certainly I talked about it in practice rounds, the match we had,” Kuchar said. “I have a lot of fans out here that remember the ’98 Amateur, so got a lot of people cheering me on and rooting for me.”
Starting his first round on the 10th tee, he was even through eight holes Thursday before making a long birdie putt. That started a run of three birdies in six holes as he seeks his first major title. Kuchar shot a bogey-free 67 to finish at 3 under, one of six players tied for fifth, 2 strokes behind leaders Adam Scott and Jim Furyk.
“I made eight pars in a row and looked like it was going to be nine pars in a row, and that putt snuck in and it was nice to finally get one,” the 35-year-old Kuchar said. “Was able to hit a close approach shot on 2 and was able to seemingly get things going kind of quickly.”
Garcia, meanwhile, shot a 69.
The Eagle lands
Martin Kaymer executed the shot exactly as he planned. The result was better than he expected.
Kaymer had 160 yards left on the par-5 13th hole and chose an 8-iron, knowing it might be too much club.
“But I thought if I hit it high, it will spin and I might have a good chance to make 4,” he said.
The ball landed behind the flag and spun back toward the hole, swirling around the cup and dropping for an eagle. He followed that by hitting driver on the short par-4 14th to the right of the green, and getting up-and-down for birdie.
It was part of a 3-3-3 stretch on his card, and moved him closer to the leaders. Kaymer finished with back-to-back bogeys for a 68.
But the eagle was his highlight.
“It helps a lot in a major. It’s such a big moment,” Kaymer said. “You’re thinking about 4, hopefully, and then you make 3. It’s such a big bonus.”
Another bonus? Emotion from the German, who thrust his arms in the air and flashed a broad smile.
“I think you guys should be happy that I showed more emotion than usual,” he said.
Phil Mickelson felt it was inexcusable to make double bogey on the par-5 fourth hole, which can be reached in two. He hit his first tee shot out-of-bounds.
He wasn’t nearly as bothered by the double bogey he made on No. 18, which began with a drive deep into the trees left of the fairway. Mickelson tried to hit through a tiny gap in the trees, but it hit smack into them. He pitched out with his third shot, hit onto the green and missed his 10-foot bogey putt.
Mickelson didn’t think he had many options.
“I would have to go backwards to get to the fairway,” Mickelson said. “I couldn’t go straight outside. I couldn’t go forward. So I had to pitch out backwards, which would have left me on a downhill lie with a 4-iron. So I thought 5 was going to be tough and 6 was going to be in play. I was trying to get a 9-iron through the little gap so I would have a 100 yard shot left, and it hit a tree.
“I was fighting for 5 from the start, and I ended up making a 6,” he said. “So it’s not like I lost too much.”
Paul Casey used to be a regular at major championships, sometimes even high on the leaderboard.
Now, the English player just appreciates the chance to play.
Casey reached as high as No. 3 in the world just four years ago until a series of injuries. He went through most of 2011 with a right foot problem, which made it painful to shift his weight during the swing. Just as he was regaining his strength, he broke his collarbone in a snowboard accident. Casey tried to return too early, but his game got worse and his world ranking plunged.
This was the second straight year he qualified for only two majors, and if not for his win at the Irish Open, he likely would have missed the PGA Championship.
“Without sounding sort of cocky, I feel like ... I enjoy it out here. I belong out here; I love it out here,” Casey said after opening with a 67. “Having missed so many, I’m very appreciative being back on the big stage. It’s a classic tale of you don’t realize how much you’re missing something until it’s gone.”
Casey didn’t show up at Oak Hill in perfect health. He was so sick last week at Firestone that he got in only one practice round at Oak Hill on Wednesday.
“Maybe it was the best thing I could have done was to save energy for today, and I did feel fresh,” he said.
Australia’s Marcus Fraser was a combined 23 over for the U.S. Open and British Open this year.
He appeared headed for more of the same when he opened the first round of the PGA Championship with two bogeys.
Then Fraser didn’t make another bogey the rest of the way. Five birdies over an 11-hole stretch gave him a 67.
“A bogey, bogey start was pretty standard for the way things are going the last few months,” he said. “Went out there and just gave it everything I got at the time. Been struggling a bit, and everything sort of came together.”
The prize money for the PGA Championship is at $8 million for the third straight year. First place is $1,445,000. Everyone who misses the cut gets $2,500. ... The last time Scott Piercy played a round at a major, he made two triple bogeys in an 88 to miss the cut at the British Open. He had no such problems Thursday, shooting 67. ... Fifty-one-year-old Kohki Idoki, the Senior PGA champion, made four straight birdies starting on the second hole to quickly move to 4 under. But he had four bogeys and a double bogey in his last 10 holes for a 2-over 72. ... Bo Van Pelt opened with an 80 and withdrew with a hip injury. ... Rob Labritz, the golf director at GlenArbor Golf Club in Bedford Hills, N.Y., had the honor of hitting the opening tee shot of the PGA. He was 8 over through six holes and closed with 11 straight pars for a 78.