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Justin Thomas, Joaquin Niemann charge early but Rory McIlroy still leads at PGA

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Tulsa — Justin Thomas and Joaquin Niemann battled through blustery conditions to make early charges but Rory McIlroy clung to a one-stroke lead in Friday’s second round of the PGA Championship.

Four-time major winner McIlroy fired a five-under par 65 on Thursday at Southern Hills to seize a one-shot lead over Americans Will Zalatoris and Tom Hoge and all three were set for an afternoon tee time Friday.

“It was a great start,” McIlroy said. “I’ve been playing well.”

McIlroy, chasing his first major title since the 2014 PGA, fired his best opening round at a major since a 65 at the 2011 US Open at Congressional, where he won his first major title.

Thomas, the 2017 PGA champion who battled allergies to open on 67, grinded through brisk winds Friday with gusts above 40 mph.

Back-nine starter Thomas rolled in a six-foot birdie putt at the 10th hole and briefly matched McIlroy with a birdie at the par-5 13th, dropping his approach inside four feet and sinking the putt.

But the American found a bunker and made bogey at the par-3 14th to drop back then parred his way to the turn.

Chile’s Niemann, who won his second US PGA Tour title at Riviera in February, opened on 68. The Friday back-nine starter birdied the 10th and 12th to match Thomas on 4-under, one back of McIlroy after 13 holes.

Winds were predicted to decrease when McIlroy, Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth, trying to complete a career Grand Slam, made an afternoon start.

Woods, in his second event of a comeback from severe leg injuries suffered in a February 2021 car crash, struggled to an opening 74 and complained his right leg hurt.

The 15-time major winner placed 47th in his return in April’s Masters and walking 72 holes was an achievement but with a projected cut at 3-over, the 46-year-old star was in jeopardy of not reaching the weekend.

Top-ranked Masters champion Scottie Scheffler, who has won four of his past eight starts, opened with a 71 and began off the 10th tee alongside his two nearest rivals in the world rankings — Jon Rahm, the reigning US Open champion from Spain who opened on 73, and Collin Morikawa, last year’s British Open winner who opened on 72.

It’s the first time since the 2013 US Open the world’s three top-ranked players were grouped together at a major.

Through seven holes, all three were on level par for the second round.

Rahm would overtake Scheffler for world number one with a victory if the American finished outside the top five.

AFP

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