SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – Playing their first competitive round in about a month, Brooks Koepka (68) and Chris Wood (69) surprised even themselves with under-par scores on the first day of the PGA Championship.
They couldn’t have come at a better time, either, with Ryder Cup qualifying heating up.
Koepka hasn’t played since he withdrew midway through the first round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational because of discomfort in his right ankle. He was later diagnosed with torn ligaments and pulled out of The Open.
Thursday’s opening round at Baltusrol was the first time that he’s played 18 holes since the final round of the U.S. Open on June 19.
“I feel fine,” he said with a smirk. “Shot 2 under, so that’s fine. I’ll take that.”
Koepka’s ankle was heavily taped and he wore a brace during the first round. He said he began to feel discomfort on the fourth hole, but he managed four birdies and an eagle. Most of the pain arrives, he said, after the weight shift to his downswing and up into his follow-through, when he spins onto his toes.
Koepka said he wouldn’t have played this week if it weren’t a major. Since suffering the injury, he’s dropped from third to ninth in Ryder Cup points. The top eight as of Aug. 28 automatically qualify.
“I don’t want to be a pick,” said Koepka, who was passed over last fall for the Presidents Cup team. “Just play my way onto the team and see how it goes.”
The Ryder Cup is also on the mind of Wood, the Englishman who currently occupies the fourth and final qualifying spot on the European Points List. The squad will be finalized at the end of August.
The BMW PGA champion hasn’t played a full competitive round since the French Open on July 3. Wood felt pain on the right side of his neck on Tuesday of Scottish Open week, a day after spending the day in the Royal Box at Wimbledon. The discomfort hasn’t subsided, and he withdrew from the Scottish Open and pulled out after 11 holes of The Open, despite receiving treatment three times a day.
A scan last week revealed no structural damage, but he said it’s “been three weeks of not being able to move too easily and not make a full backswing.” Most eye-opening was a range session at The Open, where he saw a TrackMan reading that his drive carried only 190 yards.
“When it drags on for three weeks,” he said, “the mind starts wondering: Am I safe? Am I not? Do I need to do much else?”
Wood spoke with European Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke before The Open at Royal Troon, to update him on his status. Clarke told him to “chill out and get myself fit,” but that was easier said than done.
“He can say all he wants about me having a chance,” Wood said, “but until my name is cemented, I’m not going to be able to relax.”
Wood said as of Sunday, he hadn’t hit more than a 100-yard wedge shot in the past few weeks. He played 18 holes Tuesday, with discomfort, but Wednesday’s nine-hole spin around Baltusrol was the first time that he’s been able to play pain-free.
Wood said that he arrived here with “no expectations,” because he was coming to a demanding venue with only short-game reps, but he shot 69 Thursday and was only four shots off the early lead.
Wood said he would have tried to play this week no matter his health.
“Just because of what’s at stake at the moment,” he said. “I’ve got to play to cement my place on the team.”
Wood is also in the field for next week’s match-play event in Scotland on the European Tour. If he drops out of the top four on the points list, he could add another start, late next month in Denmark.
“But I’ll have to get the wife’s permission,” he said with a smile. Wood is getting married Aug. 20.