JOHNS CREEK, Ga. - Not everyone likes the changes at Atlanta Athletic Club since the last PGA Championship was held here.
Phil Mickelson, runner-up to winner David Toms in 2001, said the layout used to be a fun, great course. “Now, it’s long and its hard,” he said after an opening 1-over 71 on Thursday. “That’s what it is.”
Architect Rees Jones renovated the course in 2006 for the PGA, and it now measures 7,467 yards, the longest in major championship history for a par 70. Mickelson had no problems with the setup, the playability or the challenge to the world’s best golfers. He wondered, though, how the members would handle the new distances once the tournament left.
And Mickelson didn’t stop there.
He said four par 3s - three of them more than 200 yards long and all but one with water in play - are the perfect example of how course designers have made the game unplayable for the average Joe.
“That guy that redid this one,” Mickelson said, shaking his head. “It’s great for the championship, but it’s not great for the membership.”
Toms, paired with Mickelson like he was 10 years ago, said the course is a different animal than the one he won on in 2001.
“A lot longer, different greens, a lot of fairway bunkers, a lot of fairways are kind of awkward tee shots that we didn’t have last time,” Toms said after his 2-over 72. “It’s a tougher golf course, much tougher.”
Mickelson agreed wholeheartedly. He shot 14-under here in 2001, finishing in the 60s all four rounds. This time, he opened with a bogey on the very birdie-able No. 10 - “I spotted the field two shots right from the start,” he said - and was never below par at any point in the round.
Mickelson had no problems with the AAC’s shortest holes, making four pars. His beef is how regular golfers will manage with the long carries over water and punishing bunkers waiting behind the greens. “This is a great example again of how modern architecture is killing the participation of the sport,” Mickelson said.
COOL KELLY: Jerry Kelly said his aggressive nature has gotten in the way of good golf too often - and he’s taking steps to avoid that at the PGA Championship.
Kelly finished with a 5-under 65, matching his lowest score ever at the PGA Championship and ending a streak of 14 consecutive rounds in the 70s at this major. Kelly has missed the cut in his past four PGA appearances.
Kelly acknowledged he always pushed too hard on the accelerator, even when the situation called for some brake. “I’m trying to scale it back a little bit this week, consciously, and I did a fantastic job today,” Kelly said.
He had six birdies and just one bogey at Atlanta Athletic Club to move two shots off the lead of his good friend - and fellow Wisconsin native - Steve Stricker. The two practiced together this week along with Scott Verplank, who was two more shots behind after his 67.
Kelly said he’s always gone hard at whatever he did, especially golf. He has three PGA Tour wins, the last at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans in 2009. Kelly hasn’t had a top-10 finish since a third at the Honda Classic in early March and missed the cut in the two majors he played, the Masters and British Open. So a change of style might be in order.
Kelly said he’s never been a power hitter and had to rely on effort to compete. These days, he’s more confident in his technique. “I’m able to actually hit it smooth. I’ve never been able to do that before and I hope it continues,” he said.
BUBBA’S TURNAROUND: Bubba Watson had a share of the PGA lead after four consecutive birdies on his first nine holes. Then came a big mistake.
Watson said he allowed himself to be distracted on the first hole, his 10th, by a volunteer pounding a stake back into the ground at the Atlanta Athletic Club. That led to bogey, the second of five straight Watson would make on the way to a 4-over 74, 11 shots behind leader Steve Stricker.
Watson said he couldn’t block out the noise and lost focus “for the rest of the day, and I was mad. I wasn’t mad at the volunteer, I was mad at myself.”
Watson lost this title in playoff to Germany’s Martin Kaymer at Whistling Straights in 2010. He’s ranked 15th in the world and was considered one of the best hopes to end America’s majors drought. A U.S. player hasn’t won a major since Phil Mickelson’s Masters win in 2010.
Watson was not the only one involved in last year’s dramatic PGA finish to struggle Thursday. Kaymer, the defending champ, was nine strokes behind at 2-over 72. Dustin Johnson, part of last year’s playoff before a two-stroke penalty dropped him to fifth, was 12 strokes back at 5-over 75.
Johnson grounded his club in a bunker on the 18th hole in the final round, although the area was tramped down by spectators all week and did not appear to be hazard.
Johnson came here off a strong showing in the last major, finishing second to Darren Clarke at the British Open.
BIG-TIME BOB: Bob Sowards, a club professional from Portsmouth, Ohio, hadn’t shot under par or made the cut in his four previous trips to the PGA Championship. He took care of the first goal Thursday with a 1-under 69 and is hoping to finish off the other come Friday.
Sowards was the lowest of the 20 club pros entered at Atlanta Athletic Club. He said the PGA is the pinnacle of the year for guys like him, who spend as much time teaching the game as playing it. Sowards is the pro at New Albany Country Club. He bettered his two playing partners in Ryan Moore (75) and Tetsuji Hiratsuka (76).
Sowards said it wouldn’t be easy keeping emotions in check for another 18 holes, especially with the chance to play the weekend with the world’s best. “Without a doubt, I’m going to be looking at the cut line,” he said. “Hopefully, I won’t have to” sneak a look if he has another stellar round like this.
DIVOTS: Tommy “Two Gloves” Gainey had an 11-over 81 in first round at a major championship. Gainey, a former winner on The Golf Channel’s “Big Break” series, struggled at Atlanta Athletic Club and had a quadruple-bogey 9 on the par-5 12th hole. … World No. 1 Luke Donald had two late bogeys to drop to even-par 70 while his English compatriot, world No. 2 Lee Westwood was shot further behind at 1-over 71. … British Open champion Darren Clarke was at 8-over 78, tied for 138th.