Jon Rahm and Scottie Scheffler have spent the spring separating themselves from everyone else in golf.
During the opening round of the PGA Championship at brawny and breezy Oak Hill on Thursday, Scheffler created a little cushion of his own.
The world’s second-ranked player put together a largely stress-free 3-under 67, two off the early pace set by PGA Tour rookie Eric Cole in a performance that offered proof the run Scheffler’s been on for the last 16 months shows no signs of subsiding.
Rahm, who ascended to No. 1 in the world in January, fought his swing and the East Course’s tricky layout with a 6-over 76 that put him in the rare position of staring up — way up — the leaderboard at the frontrunners, a group that always seems to include Scheffler.
“I feel like I did a lot of things really well,” Scheffler said. “I think there was a few putts that could have gone in, and my score could have been even lower. I’m just happy to get through it no bogeys and good momentum going into tomorrow.” Building momentum hasn’t been an issue for Scheffler since early 2022, when the unassuming Texas sprinted to the top of the world rankings after winning four times in six starts. That stretch ended with him donning the green jacket for the first time after a clinical triumph at the Masters.
He cruised to a five-shot victory at The Players Championship in March — a tournament Rahm withdrew from after the first round due to food poisoning — and arrived at Oak Hill having finished outside the top 12 once all season, including a tie for fifth at the Byron Nelson last week.
That tournament — where Jason Day’s winning score was 23-under — is essentially a birdie-fest.
The PGA is not. Oak Hill is set up to reward those who avoid mistakes. Scheffler made very few during five-plus hours of nearly flawless golf, hardly bothered by an early-morning frost that pushed his tee time back nearly two hours.
Scheffler saw the delay pop up on his phone while he was still at the house he’s using this week and promptly rolled over to go back to sleep, symbolic of a player whose easygoing yin plays in stark contrast to Rahm’s sometimes fiery yang.
Then again, there was little for Scheffler to get worked up about during a bogey-free round in which he never had a par put longer than 7 feet. When he missed greens, he scrambled effectively on a day he one-putted 10 times, an underwhelming performance on the greens at Augusta National firmly behind him.
“I’ve stuck to my process of how I like to putt,” he said. “I’m still working on the same fundamentals that I’m usually always working on. Golf is a hard game. ... The more free and loose I can play, especially on the greens, it’s usually the better off I am.” While Scheffler navigated the beefed-up par-70 with relative ease, Rahm was two groups behind enduring his toughest start in a major in five years.
His 76 tied for his highest-ever at the PGA and his worst opening round at a major since a 78 at the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock.
Rahm bookended his round with birdies. It’s in between where things got messy. The 28-year-old started on the back nine and bogeyed five of six holes around the turn then later added a double bogey at the par-4 seventh when his tee shot landed in the left rough. He needed three shots to reach the green before three-putting from 43 feet.
“Obviously the first six, seven -- six holes of the day I played really good, put myself in a good spot and after that I found myself battling,” Rahm said.
An unusual spot for a player who has reeled off four wins since the start of the season, including a four-shot victory at Augusta National last month that gave him his second major and put him halfway to a career grand slam.
Rahm arrived in western New York relaxed and confident after a strong runner-up finish to Tony Finau at the Mexico Open.
Yet at a course where hitting it straight is at a premium because of the gnarly rough more typical of a U.S. Open, Rahm’s driver betrayed him. He found 5 of 14 fairways and couldn’t compensate with his putter. After rolling in a birdie from nearly 17 feet on the 10th hole, his first of the day, he didn’t make anything over 8 feet the rest of the round.
Still, Rahm remained upbeat. As bad as it was, it could have been worse. Conditions only figure to get more difficult over the next three days and he pointed to his finish, where he birdied the par-4 eighth and parred the par-4 ninth with swings he allowed weren’t his best.
“There’s many ways to do this,” Rahm said. “You don’t need to play perfect.” Maybe, but Rahm might need to play pretty close to it Friday if he wants any chance to chase down Scheffler and everyone else by the rest of the weekend.
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