It took a back-nine rally, but Phil Mickelson battled himself into contention on Thursday at the PGA Championship.
Mickelson, who went 3-over on his first six holes, finished with an impressive 2-under 70 — which puts him just three back from leader Corey Conners at the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island in South Carolina.
Mickelson’s day got off to a brutal start. Lefty, after bogeying his opening hole, made three more through his first six holes of the day. It looked like Mickelson, who hasn’t made it inside the top-20 all year, was preparing to miss another cut.
That, though, is where he turned things around. Mickelson closed out his final 12 holes of the day with five birdies to vault himself back up near the top of the leaderboard.
“In the last couple of months, I’ve been starting to play good golf, but I’ve had … a little bit of trouble staying present on every shot for the entire round,” Mickelson said. “I thought I did a pretty good job of that today after I got off to kind of a rough start — 3-over through 6 — but I was able to kind of right the ship on the downwind holes, the holes you can take advantage of.”
While his start is solid, Mickelson now has to actually carry that momentum over into the next three rounds — something the 50-year-old failed to do in his last PGA Tour outing at the Wells Fargo Championship.
After taking the first-round lead at Quail Hollow with a 64, Mickelson dropped three straight rounds in the mid-70s and finished in 69th.
If he can keep it together through the rest of the week, Mickelson's first major title in eight years will definitely be within reach.
Brooks Koepka sits just two back
He didn’t have the low round on Thursday, but Brooks Koepka’s start was incredibly strong.
Koepka, after battling back to even par on his front nine, made three birdies in his final six holes to get to his 3-under 69. He started the day with a double bogey, however, something he said he "deserved every bit of."
“It helped me refocus,” he said. “I can’t play with any mistakes, maybe one a day, and that was my one, and I got it out of the way the first hole. Just had to be real careful and watch what I was doing.”
Koepka underwent surgery on his right knee to fix a dislocated kneecap and other ligament damage in March, something he injured after slipping and falling with his family in Florida. He’s played twice since then, but missed the cut at both the Masters and the AT&T Byron Nelson. While at Augusta National, Koepka was struggling to read putts on the green and even walk due to his knee.
Now, even though he said he’s not 100% healthy again, Koepka said — and proved — he’s able to fight through the pain.
"Every day gets a little bit better, but I don't notice it," he said. "I notice it kind of more over weeks. Week to week, I'll notice it gets a lot better. I mean, it feels fine right now."
Koepka is joined in second by five others, including Viktor Hovland, Keegan Bradley and Aaron Wise.
Corey Conners leads early after best major finish
With just a solo bogey on his scorecard, Corey Conners has taken the lead at the PGA Championship.
Conners posted a 5-under 67 on Thursday, marking the Canadian’s best finish after any round in a major championship.
“I am really pleased with the score,” he said. “I definitely knew in my preparation that it was possible to have a decent round out here and shoot a 5-, 6-under par round.
“So I kind of started the day thinking, ‘Why not me?’ There's birdies to be had. Just play with patience, you know, take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves.”
Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy stumble early
There were several stars who struggled Thursday and are now eying an early trip home.
Both Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy finished with a 3-over 75. Thomas had a brutal stretch when he made the turn, going bogey-double bogey on Nos. 17 and 18 before making bogey again on No. 2. McIlroy was equally as bad on his back nine, carding a trio of birdies on the first five holes.
Reigning Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama faired a bit better than McIlroy and Thomas, finishing at 1-over alongside Jordan Spieth. Dustin Johnson came in at 2-over, and Sergio Garcia and Matt Kuchar each went 5-over.
John Daly actually led the tournament briefly on Thursday morning, thanks to a chip-in birdie on his first hole. That, however, was the lone bright spot en route to his 13-over 85.
Sebastian Munoz may have had the best worst shot of the day. Though he went 5-over, Munoz’s drive on No. 18 was a perfect hole-in-one … into a trash can on the left side of the fairway.
Conners' round has vaulted him to the top of the betting odds, as well. BetMGM puts Conners at +750, just ahead of Hovland (+800). Mickelson, again just three shots back of the lead, is at +6600, which is actually lower than McIlroy (+5000) and tied with Thomas.
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