An end-of-the-year bash for the top 30 on the PGA Tour money list turned into a final exam Thursday at the Tour Championship. Retief Goosen and Joe Durant shared the lead at 2-under 68, the highest score to lead an opening round at East Lake, and only six other players managed to break par in cool, blustery conditions.
Goosen kept trying to squeeze tee shots into the fairway, the wind blowing sideways on just about every hole. Ernie Els was a part-time player, part-time gardener while clearing pine needles out of the line of his putts.
Davis Love III bogeyed the first three holes on his way to his highest score to par as a pro, a 12-over 82 with no birdies.
Perhaps the only consolation is the $1.17 million for the winner at the end of the week.
"You just felt like you had to hang in there," said Goosen, who missed a 4-foot par putt on the 18th hole. "It's tough out there for everybody today."
Not for Tiger and Phil.
The two biggest stars on the PGA Tour decided to take this week off -- Mickelson also skipped last year -- taking some shine off the final tournament of the year. They spared themselves a round so challenging that it was the highest score to lead the first round at East Lake since the Tour Championship first came here in 1998.
Jim Furyk took a huge step toward winning the Vardon Trophy, recovering from a nasty patch in his back nine to birdie two of the last four holes for a 69, leaving him tied with 2002 winner Vijay Singh.
"It was playable, but I also wasn't able to eliminate the mistakes," Furyk said. "The blustery conditions, the cool, windy weather, it made those bogey easy to find out there. I didn't play probably as consistent as I would have liked to, but I made a bunch of birdies to cover up those mistakes and had a good day."
Singh had a chance to reach 3 under until missing a 6-foot birdie putt on the 16th -- no one made birdie there in the first round -- and three-putted from 40 feet to make bogey on the 17th.
"I played pretty well," Singh said. "It's unfortunate about a few putts, but I'll take in these conditions."
J.J. Henry didn't make a par until the sixth hole and had only five on the day. He countered with six birdies and seven bogeys, and was wiped out when he finished, calling it the toughest test he had faced since the U.S. Open.
K.J. Choi didn't go quite that far.
"You make a mistake here, it cost you one shot," he said. "At the U.S. Open, it cost you three shots."
It cost Love plenty.
He started by hitting into the bunkers and getting a plugged lie on the first three holes, and it never got any better. Love was the only player who failed to make a birdie.
"If I had hit it on the green, I wouldn't have had those lies," Love said.
True, but he might have saved his fragile back by not having to do gardening on the greens. The wind covered the greens with leaves and pine needles. Els and Choi got put on the clock on the seventh hole after spending some five minutes clearing the line of their putts, and at one point, Els motioned to caddie Malcolm Mason to help him out.
Choi finally finished, and when he stood over his putt, more leaves had blown in his way.
"We need a damn gardener out there," Els said after a hard-earned 71. "It's going to be a problem all week because the leaves are coming off now with this wind. If you hit it 30 feet, you've got a lot of leaves. Even if you stood over your second shot in the fairway, you could just see the leaves coming. Either you wait for it you don't. It kind of bothers you a little bit."
Even so, this is one time Els wasn't bothered by a round over par.
He needs a victory this week to finish his PGA Tour season with a victory and earn a ticket to Kapalua, his favorite place to start the year. He never was better than even par the entire round, but he didn't stay too far way from the lead.
The demands of East Lake were evident early.
On the par-3 second hole, Choi posed over his shot and was stunned when it came up some 15 yards short and to the right. Els was next to hit, and he also struck a confident pose as it took dead aim at the flag, only to disappear into the bunker.
Walking off the tee, Els stopped and looked over his shoulder at the top of the trees. Choi was walking about 10 yards in front of him, and he stooped over to snatch some yellow grass and toss it into the breeze, still trying to figure out what happened.
Tough as it was, guys like Durant had no problem for more than one reason.
First, he opened with four birdies on his first seven holes, including an unlikely one on the par-3 sixth. He thought his ball had sailed into the water and was about to take a drop when a marshal told him his ball was OK. Durant found a perfect lie behind the green, then chipped in for a birdie.
Plus, Durant still has to pinch himself to believe he's actually at the Tour Championship.
Three months ago, he was in danger of losing his card. He slowly turned it around, then hit his stride the last month, winning at Disney to earn a two-year exemption and tying for fourth to nail down his spot at East Lake.
"I was sitting here looking out over the lake thinking, 'I can't believe I'm here this week after where I stood halfway through the year,"' Durant said. "It's been a great two months for me."