Brandon Stone in action during the first round of the PGA Championship golf tournament at Bellerive Country Club. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports/Reuters

ST. LOUIS – Brandon Stone never imagined himself among the leaders at the 100th PGA Championship, but the 25-year-old South African is riding his best career form as far as it takes him.

Stone delivered a four-under par 66 Thursday at Bellerive Country Club to grab a share of third with two-time major champion Zach Johnson, two strokes behind US first-round leader Gary Woodland.

“Yeah, 66 on a Thursday of the US PGA, if you had told me that a month ago, I would have said you're kind of smoking something,” Stone said.

It's only Stone's seventh major start, having missing the cut in the past two PGAs.

“I think Quail Hollow chewed me up and spit me out quite quickly last year,” Stone said.

But everything changed for Stone last month when he won the Scottish Open, firing a final-round 60 to capture the European Tour event and bolster his spirits.

“That victory was monumental. Just the confidence factor. Just got that monkey off my back,” Stone said. “I knew I could play and compete with the best players in the world.”

Stone, ranked 110th, made a putting breakthrough the Monday of the Scotland triumph that still serves him well.

“I'm putting a lot better than I have. I'm really running it very nicely,” he said. “I switched back to a good old school blade putter the Monday of the Scottish Open and since then I really felt like I'm putting leaps and bounds ahead of where I had been prior.”

Stone shared fifth after the first day of the British Open before finishing 61st, but that helped prepare him for the heat and tension and huge crowds he faced down Thursday.

“Swing felt phenomenal, really held up under the pressure coming home,” Stone said. “You can't coach someone to behave and focus in this atmosphere. It's 105 degrees (40.5 C) out there with 35,000 people walking around you. So having had the previous experience at Baltrusol and Quail Hollow really helped.”

'Huge screams' for Stone

Stone engaged with the spectators and they responded with roars like he was from down the street instead of half world away.

“There were just so many people out here,” Stone said. “I really engaged with the fans. It kind of kept me at ease, kept me nice and loose.

“I don't think I have the educational level of vocabulary to really describe it. It's just fun to have 40,000 or 50,000 people supporting you and cheering you on. Every birdie you made, there were huge screams.

“I'm a kid from South Africa. I have nothing to do with St. Louis. The spectators have been incredible. To be here competing with those guys and kind of holding your own really shows the game's close to where it could be.”

Stone opened with a 19-foot birdie putt, put his approach to three feet at the par-5 eighth and birdied 14 before a bunker at 15 cost him a bogey, to which he responded with a 32-foot birdie putt stunner at the par-3 16th and another birdie at 17 before a closing par.

“Got the ball in the hole as good as I could possibly do. Hit it really well,” Stone said. “The rhythm was spectacular and the swing. Just putted beautifully. Rolled the ball so nicely.”

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'Monumental' win dreams

He's expecting to hear from friends and relatives before teeing off Friday morning.

“I'm sure my phone will be blowing up even though it's 3 in the morning (in South Africa),” Stone said. “I'm pretty sure my grandfather and father haven't turned the TV off since they've had their dinner.”

While he dreams of joining the South African major winners list topped by Gary Player and Ernie Els, Stone knows that one good round doesn't bring a Wanamaker Trophy.

“To be in that list would be monumental,” Stone said. “At the same time, it is Thursday. You need to play smart. You need to play consistent golf. When there's a green light, go for it. When there's a red light, you've got to step off.”

Agence France-Presse (AFP)