- Bob Harig, Senior Golf Writer
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HAVEN, Wis. -- The course was reputed to be so hard, so demanding, that there didn't figure to be 10 birdies made all day, let alone by three players in the first five holes.
Wasn't this big, bad Whistling Straits?
The threesome teed off Thursday morning during the first round of the 86th PGA Championship and immediately put the rest of the field at ease. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all.
Choi birdied the first five holes. Clarke birdied the first four. Leonard birdied the second hole, then went on a tear on the back nine. All three players were in the top six on the leaderboard when their rounds were completed by lunchtime.
"Watching Darren and K.J. birdie the first four that we played, and K.J. decided to add another, it was fun," Leonard said. "It was fun to watch those guys. I think they were playing so well, I kind of got sucked into it on the back nine. I think we all definitely fed off each other, and it was just a fun day, a fun group to be a part of."
The threesome was a combined 17 under par on a Whistling Straits course originally listed at 7,514 yards but reduced considerably Thursday due to fear over strong winds.
The eighth, 11th and 18th holes all had their yardages reduced by some 50 yards each, while the wind never did materialize in the morning.
That made for a nice, pleasant round of golf on the links-style course that borders Lake Michigan.
Clarke shot a 7-under 65 to take the lead, followed by Leonard at 66. Choi, after his hot start, cooled off with a couple of bogeys on the front nine but still shot 68.
"There was good shots and hitting at flags all over the place," Clarke said. "When your playing partners are playing that well, it's very easy to keep on concentrating on your own game and when they hit a good shot in, you want to hit a good shot in. I think it was very beneficial to all of us that we all played well."
Ironically, it was Clarke who suggested earlier in the week that Whistling Straits was one of the hardest courses he had ever seen, that par was more like 77.
"I've never seen so many par-6 holes in my life," he said. The native of Northern Ireland likened its look to some of the courses in his homeland, but didn't much fancy his chances for success.
"I didn't think for the first round practicing Sunday I would be able to shoot 65 on Thursday," Clarke said.
He admitted, however, the conditions were far different than they were during the practice rounds, when the wind was much stronger. Wednesday, with temperatures, in the 50s, was particularly challenging.
But by mid-morning Thursday, the wind had died down, and it was a nice, cool summer day.
"We got fortunate with the conditions this morning; the greens were holding, we were able to fire at flags that we were not able to do earlier in the week," said Clarke. "I rolled the ball well on the greens, so all in all, I'm very pleased with 65.
"We had better conditions this morning. And the wind eased for us on the back nine. The greens were soft, and some of the pin positions were I would not say generous, but reasonable to get it. There were still a lot of tough ones out there, but with the way the par-5s were playing, barring No. 5, there were some birdie opportunities out there. So fortunately, I made most of them."
Leonard was just 1 under on the front nine, but the 1997 British Open champion got on a roll with birdies at the 10th, 12th, 13th, 14th and 16th holes.
"In general, I think it's because the greens are in such great shape," Leonard said. "And they are still a little soft. That's the way they should play because there's so much undulation out there. I think on a golf course like this, the more times you play, the more confident you get. I know that's the way I felt this week. I think guys are getting more comfortable and they are kind of figuring this golf course out."
Well, at least one threesome did.