Jon Rahm and Scottie Scheffler separated themselves from the world of golf heading into the 2023 PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club. On Thursday, the top two golfers in the world separated from one another as the co-favorites went in opposite directions the first 18 holes of competition.
Rahm signed for a horrendous 6-over 76, while Scheffler ended his round with the clubhouse lead thanks to a 3-under 67. By the time the afternoon groups came in, Scheffler sat one back of the 4-under lead.
After beginning his 2023 Masters with a four-putt double bogey, Rahm got his PGA Championship off to a much better start with an opening birdie. That was as good as it would get for the Spaniard as he remained 1 under until he reached the 16th tee — his sixth hole of the day. It was only then that the driver began to misbehave in a manner similar to that of early spring when he put together poor performances at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and WGC-Match Play.
A pair of wayward drives on 16 and 18 sandwiched an ill-advised approach on the difficult 17th as Rahm carded three consecutive bogeys to close his first nine. Trouble with ball-striking continued into his second half as an approach long of the second green led to another dropped shot and an iron short of the par-3 3rd gave way for another. His sixth bogey in the span of nine holes arrived shortly thereafter on No 6.
A sloppy double bogey, birdie and a par save on his final three holes put the finishing touches on a 6-over 76 for the reigning Masters champion. In his first start since the Mexico Open, Rahm’s rust was apparent; it has put him fully behind the eight ball as he finds himself 10 strokes off the clubhouse lead as of Thursday afternoon.
While Rahm was erratic, the world No. 2 was methodical. Playing alongside two-time PGA Championship winner Brooks Koepka and 2019 U.S. Open winner Gary Woodland, Scheffler gave his fellow major champions a masterclass on how to attack the Donald Ross design.
Stretches of four straight pars sandwiched a birdie on the drivable par-4 14th as Scheffler turned in ho-hum fashion with a 1-under 34. It may not have seemed like much at the time, but Scheffler’s initial nine holes saw him gain nearly three strokes on the field.
He continued to play in this fashion into the more difficult front nine at Oak Hill. Hitting a rough patch at the par-4 4th, Scheffler converted a crucial par save on one of the rare scoring opportunities and parlayed this momentum into a strong finish.
“I got some good momentum after No. 4,” said Scheffler. “I pulled my drive a little bit there, which is a miss. If you hit it right in the bunker, you are chipping out sideways. I went up against a tree and actually got the ball back into play somehow, which was a great shot. Hit a pretty good iron shot in there, too. We got a wind switch and had a really good up and down to keep the round going. You would hate to bogey a par-5, especially when there’s only two of them around this place. That was good momentum. I used that to close out the round pretty strong.”
It was put to use immediately as Scheffler connected from 15 feet on the par-3 5th for his second birdie of the day. The 26-year-old added another par breaker on the 8th to reach 3 under.
Narrowly missing one last birdie bid on his closing hole, Scheffler settled for a bogey-free 67, his first such round in a major championship, to grab the early lead along with Corey Conners. Scheffler was the only player in the morning wave to go without a bogey.
What worked Thursday is the exact same formula that has been working for Scheffler the last 15 months. He led the field in strokes gained tee to green, ranked inside the top 15 in both strokes gained off the tee and strokes gained approach and had a nice showing around the green. He didn’t putt great, but more importantly, he didn’t putt himself out of it. If he continues to do play like this, he is likely to raise the Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday.
“I hit a lot of good putts today,” said Scheffler. “I feel like I did a lot of things really well. 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.”