KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — Amid the wind and the havoc at Kiawah Island, there was a semblance of simplicity to the way Corey Conners navigated his way around the Ocean Course for a 5-under-par 67 and a two-shot lead Thursday in the PGA Championship.
He birdied all the par 5s. He made a couple of long putts for birdie. He dropped only one shot. The scorecard alone made it look like a walk on the beach.
It just didn't feel that way.
"I'd say it's impossible to be stress free around this golf course," Conners said. "You can't fall asleep out there on any holes. It's very challenging. I was fortunate to have a good day. Made it as least stressful as possible on myself."
With a stiff wind into his face for his last five holes, the 29-year-old Canadian played the tough closing stretch in 2 under, one of those birdies a 55-foot putt from just short of the green.
He led by two shots over a half-dozen players. That group included Brooks Koepka — who started his day with a double bogey but stayed largely out of trouble the rest of the way — and Australia's Cameron Davis, who overcame a triple bogey on the sixth hole of his opening round.
Keegan Bradley, Aaron Wise, England's Sam Horsfield and Norway's Viktor Hovland also were at 69. The seven players to break 70 were the fewest for the opening round of the PGA Championship since 2002, when there were five at Hazeltine National Golf Club.
"I definitely knew in my preparation that it was possible to have a decent round out here and shoot a 5-, 6-under par round," said Conners, whose lone PGA Tour win is the 2019 Valero Texas Open. "So kind of started the day thinking, 'Why not me?' There's birdies to be had."
No one needed them like Koepka, a major presence when conditions are severe. One hole into this venture, he had reason to be more worried about his brain than his ailing right knee.
His opening tee shot — he started on No. 10 — was struck poorly and didn't quite clear a waste area. Koepka tried to do too much from a soft lie in the sand and barely got it out. It led to a double bogey, and the toughest part of the Ocean Course was still to come.
But this is a major tournament and this is Koepka, and that's when he's at his best. He knuckled down from that mess by running off six birdies the rest of the way.
"You can't do that stuff if you want to win. You've just got to be more focused," said Koepka, who has played only twice in three months because of surgery to repair ligaments in his knee. "I don't know if that's a lack of not playing or what. It was just stupid. I was able to recover, I guess."
So did 50-year-old Phil Mickelson, a five-time major champion who had four bogeys through six holes and nothing but birdies and pars the rest of the way to join the large group tied for eighth at 70 that included 2020 PGA Championship winner Collin Morikawa and 2019 U.S. Open champ Gary Woodland.
More telling were those on the other side of par, some of whom will be scrambling to make it to the weekend.
Dustin Johnson, the No. 1 player in the Official World Golf Ranking but in his worst stretch in nearly two years, took a double bogey from a wild tee shot on the front nine and a double bogey on the 18th for a 76 and was tied for 97th in the 155-player field. He's in jeopardy of missing the cut in consecutive majors in the same year for the first time in his career.
Justin Thomas made a double bogey on No. 18 in the morning, and two holes later, he sent a sand shot over the green and just into a hazard for another 6 on the par-5 second. He had a 75 and a share of 77th.
Rory McIlroy, coming off a Wells Fargo Championship win two weeks ago, sent his opening tee shot into a water hazard. He salvaged a bogey, but certainly not his round. McIlroy made bogey on three of the par 5s for a 75, the four-time major winner's worst start in a PGA Championship.
Jordan Spieth, who needs a victory to complete the career Grand Slam, shot a 73 and was tied for 41st.
Baylor School graduate Harris English, who finished just inside the top 20 at last year's PGA Championship, opened with a 75.
The PGA of America moved up tee boxes, as expected, to account for the wind. The course played to 7,660 yards — 178 yards shorter than the scorecard — though that didn't make it easy. Thomas, for one, still hit 7-wood into the 214-yard 17th.
John Daly was among 12 players who shot in the 80s. On the 30-year anniversary of his PGA Championship victory at Crooked Stick, he had an 85.
There were birdies to be had, and mistakes to be made, and Martin Laird provided examples of both. So wild was his round that he made a bogey on No. 12, ran off four straight birdies and then closed with two bogeys for a 70.
In this case, not a bad day's work.
"I kind of went out with the mindset this week, even though it's hard, don't give the course too much respect," said Laird, a 38-year-old from Scotland whose best finish at a major was a tie for 20th at the 2011 Masters. "You still have to take on shots when you have the chance. When I had a spot where I could go at the flag, I was making sure I kept doing it and hit a lot of really nice shots and managed to make some birdies.
"You're going to hit bogeys on this golf course. It's nice when you can throw in a bunch of birdies, too."
Finally healed from a left knee injury, Koepka injured ligaments in his right knee in March and has played only twice since then, at the Masters in early April and last week in Dallas.
"It's a major. I'm going to show up. I'm ready to play," he said. "I love it when it's difficult. I think that's why I do so well in the majors. I just know mentally I can grind it out."