LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Japan’s Kiyoshi Murota surprised even himself by shooting a 6-under 66 on Thursday to overshadow stars such as Mark O’Meara and Tom Watson and grab the first-round lead in the weather-plagued Senior PGA Championship.
After a 90-minute delay at the start of the round and a later suspension of play that lasted more than 3 hours, half the field was still on the course when darkness fell. Those 78 players will hit Valhalla Golf Club early Friday to complete the first round.
Murota had a one-shot edge on alternate Trevor Dodds, with former Masters and British Open winner O’Meara another stroke back after a 68. Watson, an eight-time major champion, shot a 70.
Murota’s 66 was built around a short game that consistently helped him avoid trouble. He had four sand saves and 11 one-putt greens without a bogey.
Murota was the unlikeliest of leaders. He has six Japan Tour victories and five more on that country’s version of the senior circuit. But he has not won on the international stage or on American soil.
In his four previous appearances in the Senior PGA Championship, his worst finish was a tie for 33rd in 2007 and his best a tie for 14th in 2006.
The 55-year-old golf teacher and touring pro was 1 under through eight holes before birdieing the next four. Even though he had eight one-putt greens in a span of nine holes, he said after the round that he is typically an average putter.
Accuracy was his greatest ally. He hit 10 fairways on a day when some of the game’s top names found big problems when they strayed into the thick rough.
Dodds was fortunate to even get in the field. He didn’t get a spot until Tuesday when Joey Sindelar withdrew because of a bad back.
The St. Louis resident, originally from Namibia, needed just 23 putts to fashion his 67. He chipped in at the par-4 12th for a birdie, part of five birdies on his home half.
Hard storms hit the course on Wednesday night and again on Thursday morning. The start was delayed because of 1 1/2 inches of rain overnight along with some wind damage. Murota, in the first group off the 10th tee, was halfway through his second nine when another powerful thunderstorm ripped through the area. It delayed play for 3 hours, 11 minutes.
O’Meara called the conditions “trying” but he avoided problems all day except for a bogey at the uphill, par-4 ninth hole. In eight seniors starts this year, he’s had three top 10s and has been no worse than a tie for 14th.
In the clubhouse with 69s were Lonnie Nielsen and Bruce Vaughan, while club pro Perry Arthur was 3 under through 10 holes when play ended. Watson, who won the 2001 Senior PGA, was at 70 along with Des Smyth and Massachusetts club pro Kirk Hanefeld. Nick Price, a two-time winner of the PGA Championship and also a former British Open champion, was at 2 under through nine holes when darkness ended play.
John Cook and Bobby Clampett were at 71. At even par were Tom Kite and Corey Pavin, along with birthday-boy Steve Pate. Pate turned 50 on Thursday, just getting into the field in the 50-and-over event.
Other prominent finishers included Jay Haas with a 73 that included a triple-bogey 7 at the 16th hole, and Mark Brooks with a 74. Brooks won the PGA Championship at Valhalla in 1996.