American Jimmy Walker set the clubhouse target in the US PGA Championship as England’s Ross Fisher and Andy Sullivan increased the prospects of a clean sweep for first-time major winners in 2016.
Walker carded six birdies and a solitary bogey in an impressive 65 in sweltering conditions at Baltusrol, with temperatures in the mid-90s forcing tournament officials to water the greens during play.
Fisher’s 66 was his lowest round in any major and left him sharing second place with Argentina’s Emiliano Grillo on four under par, with Sullivan a shot further back alongside Harris English and James Hahn.
The last year in which all four majors were claimed by first-time winners was 2011, when Charl Schwartzel won the US Masters, Rory McIlroy the US Open, Darren Clarke the Open and Keegan Bradley the US PGA.
So far this season, Shefield’s Danny Willett, American Dustin Johnson and Swede Henrik Stenson have claimed the game’s biggest titles.
“I feel like I’ve prepared and I’m ready to go this week,” said 37-year-old Walker, who won five times between October 2013 and March 2015, but has struggled to reproduce such form this season.
“It’s nice that that’s what showed. I felt like I was ready to go. Winning a major would be huge, but there’s three days to go.
“It’s just been real stale and stagnant this year. I haven’t been making the 15-, 18-footers you need to make to start running up the leaderboard and to have high finishes.
“I definitely wanted to play Ryder Cup this year and I don’t know how much time there is left in that, but I know we do a lot of picks this year (four) and the picks keep going.
“I’d had it sewed up last time it came around at this point, but playing good at the end of the year would be nice.”
Fisher, whose sole top-10 finish in a major to date came in the 2009 US Open, said: “Everyone is striving to become a major champion and I’m no different. I’m coming here believing my game is good enough to win.
“I’ve got off to a great start, but I’m not going to sit back on that. There’s still a long, long way to go but this is where you want to be.
“You want to be in the four majors. I’ve missed some of those over the last few years. I missed the Masters and the US Open this year. I got to experience the Open, but only for two days.”
Sullivan has finished 12th, sixth and fifth in his last three events and completed his 67 with three birdies in the last four holes.
“I’m buzzing with that start,” the former supermarket worker from Nuneaton said. “I’ve been playing really well leading up to the tournament, so it’s just nice to keep the form and momentum going.
“It was a great atmosphere out there, the fans were making loads of noise and it was nice to be playing in the group behind Rory, Jason (Day) and Phil (Mickelson), because you could get a good view of the crowds.
“It was a bit of a struggle at times in the heat, especially down the stretch there, so I’m happy to get finished and enjoy some nice air conditioning.
“It was seriously hot and humid even first thing, so I was seriously melting out there. But I’d take this over the cold and wet we had at the Open any day, so I won’t complain.”
Defending champion Jason Day was three shots off the lead after returning a 68 despite having just one practice round, but two-time winner and playing partner McIlroy struggled to a 74, which included 35 putts.
The final member of the marquee group, Open runner-up Phil Mickelson, recovered from four over par after 11 holes with three late birdies to return a 71.
Willett was one under par when he birdied the sixth hole after starting with five consecutive pars.
But he began a run of alternating pars and bogeys and with five holes to play stood three over.
His fellow Sheffielder Matt Fitzpatrick, the British and Nordea Masters champion, handed in an opening two-over-par 72.
He had three bogeys in his first five holes before birdieing the seventh to be out in 36.
He gave the shot back at 10, but closed with a birdie at 18.