LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Ryan Palmer wanted to set the record straight.
“I think Tiger photobombed me, personally,” Palmer said Thursday.
Tongue placed firmly in cheek, the PGA Tour journeyman referenced a lighthearted photo from Woods’ surreal Wednesday practice round that went viral, the one in which Palmer struck a goofy pose while crossing a bridge with Woods in the background and an army of photographers ahead.
Picture this: Those photographers focused their attention on Palmer on Thursday during the PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club. His 6-under-par 65 tied him for the first-round lead with Lee Westwood and Kevin Chappell on a cloudy day with no wind but plenty of red numbers.
“When you get to where people are taking pictures of you walking, then you know you’re playing good,” Palmer said.
Woods made no impact with a 3-over 74, but Rory McIlroy headed a group of five, including Jim Furyk and Henrik Stenson, that was one shot behind the leaders. Considering McIlroy was coming off consecutive victories at the British Open and WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, making up one shot could be as easy as pressing the shutter button on a camera.
“My swing is in a very good place,” McIlroy said.
McIlroy almost tied the leaders with an eagle on No. 18, but his putt appeared to hit a spike mark inches from the hole to slide just wide. As it stood, McIlroy carded eight birdies, including four straight after he became “very, very hot” for reasons other than his scorching play.
McIlroy made a double bogey on the par-5 10th after blasting his second shot over a fence for a penalty. Bad shots happen, even for the world’s top-ranked player. But what upset McIlroy was following that with a three-putt bogey on the par-3 11th.
“Walking to the 12th tee, I was muttering a few things to myself,” he said.
Whatever they were, they worked. McIlroy’s approach shot on the difficult par-4 12th looked pure from the start, and his birdie binge began.
“It just shows where my game is mentally right now,” he said.
Westwood, the Ryder Cup veteran who has worn the Best Player Never To Have Won A Major label for too long, has never changed his mental state. After a top-10 finish at the Masters, Westwood failed to make the cut in the U.S. and British opens to continue his inconsistent season.
A final-round 63 at the Bridgestone emboldened him, and he closed his nine-birdie round Thursday with four straight, including a 35-foot bomb on the ninth.
“I’m just not a patient person and I get frustrated really quickly when I know I can play better than I’m actually doing,” Westwood said.
This major has produced some unexpected winners over the years, and Palmer and Chappell would love to join the group. Heck, Chappell seemed happy just to join the field, given that he received a surprise invitation from the PGA of America last week. He celebrated with a bogey-free round.
“I guess I was in a good rhythm out there,” he said.
So was Palmer, who clearly relished his moment in the camera’s eye. Though he has two runner-up finishes this year and three smaller PGA Tour wins to his name, he has never finished higher than 10th in a major.
That didn’t stop him from happily admitting that he watches leaderboards and that he aimed to break the major championship scoring record of 63 when he sat at 7 under with two holes to play. A bogey on the par-3 eighth derailed him.
“We’ll go out (Friday) and keep going for it,” Palmer said.
The cameras — and a hungry, bunched-up field — will be ready.