SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — A stale year for Jimmy Walker came to life Thursday in the PGA Championship when he saw putts drop and wound up leading a major for the first time.
A great year might get even better for Henrik Stenson.
Walker took advantage of smoother greens in the morning Thursday at Baltusrol by rolling in six birdies for 5-under 65, giving him a one-shot lead after the opening round of the final major that delivered its share of surprises.
U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson, with a chance to go to No. 1 in the world, was in the trees, in the water and couldn't get out of a bunker. He managed only one birdie in a round of 77 that wasn't enough to beat 15 of the club pros in the tournament.
He wasn't alone in his misery. Rory McIlroy took 35 putts and didn't make a single birdie in his round of 74 that left him so frustrated that he returned to Baltusrol late in the day with his putter. Phil Mickelson, who shot the round of his life in the British Open's final round two weeks ago but ended up the runnerup to Stenson, had four bogeys in his first 11 holes before rallying with three birdies to shoot 1-over 71.
Stenson had his struggles on the greens, too, but he was rolling right along at the end with three birdies over his last seven holes for 67, leaving him two shots out of the lead as he tries to become the first player since Ben Hogan in 1953 to win back-to-back majors at age 40.
"It's going to be a great season for me," Stenson said. "But at the same time, I want to give myself a chance to try to make it the best season."
Walker's year has been so mediocre that he has finished within five shots of the winner only once, at the Farmers Insurance Open in January. He is on the verge of falling out of the top 50 in the world ranking and hasn't given as much thought to September's Ryder Cup with qualifying a month away from ending.
"I'm a good putter," Walker said. "Like good shooters, just keep shooting. I'm just going to keep putting, and they're going to start going in."
And they did.
Walker wound up with a one-shot lead over two-time major champion Martin Kaymer, Emiliano Grillo and Ross Fisher. Kaymer had the best score in the afternoon, when the blend of poa annua and bent grass on the greens became more difficult to navigate.
"I feel like all year it's just been real stale and stagnant," Walker said. "It's just ebbs and flows of golf. Just haven't been scoring. … It's frustrating. I would have loved to have had a better year than I've had so far to this point, but I know there's always time to play well at the end of the year."
Even with afternoon wind gusts that approached 20 mph and the late threat of rain, Baltusrol still allowed for good scoring. Twenty players were at 68 or better, a list that included defending champion Jason Day.
Jordan Spieth regretted only one hole, the par-4 seventh, when he lost his ball so far to the right that he had to chip back into thick rough and wound up three-putting for a double bogey. That was his lone mistake. He rolled in big putts on the 15th for par, 16th for birdie and closed with a two-putt birdie to get back to par 70.
Day played in the morning group with McIlroy and Mickelson, and he was the only player without much stress. "It's not the start I wanted. It's not indicative of how I'm playing," he said. "But I'm back to where (today), if I play the way I've been playing, I should be okay."