Fast starts at PGA, but not for Tiger

Updated: August 12, 2004, 4:35 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

HAVEN, Wis. -- So much for the whipping winds of Whistling Straits and talk of the course being the toughest in major history. Players are going low early in the first round of the PGA Championship -- but no one named Tiger.

Northern Ireland's Darren Clarke birdied an astounding eight of his first 11 holes to shoot 7 under -- a number most experts thought no one would achieve through four rounds.

Clarke finished with a 65, following up a front side 31 with a back side 34.

"We got fortunate with the conditions this morning," said Clarke, who made two bogeys in addition to his nine birdies. "The greens were holding, we were able to fire at flags that we were not able to do earlier in the week.

"I'm very pleased with 65."

But Clarke was only one-third of a red-hot group that teed off the first tee at 7:50 a.m. local time.

Justin Leonard, the 1997 British Open champion, shot a 35 on the front side, then had a birdie-filled back nine. Leonard made red numbers on 10, 12, 13, 14 and 16 without a bogey to shoot a 6-under 66.

Clarke and Leonard's playing partner, K.J. Choi of South Korea, birdied his first five holes, but bogeyed the eighth and ninth to fall to 3 under. Choi later made birdie on 16, complemented by eight pars on the inward nine, to finish with a 4-under 68.

"When your playing partners are playing that well, it's very easy to keep on concentrating on your own game, and they hit a good shot in, you want to hit a good shot in," said Clarke. "I think it was beneficial to all of us that we all played well."

Meanwhile, tournament favorite Tiger Woods, trying to hold on to his No. 1 world ranking, had a rocky start and a rocky end to a disappointing day. Woods shot 3-over 75 in pursuit of his ninth career major.

Starting on the back nine, Woods made a birdie on the 10th hole to quikly move to 1 under, then duck-hooked his tee shot into the rough on No. 11, advanced only 100 yards into more rough and three-putted for double bogey. He lipped out a 4-foot par putt on the 12th, missed the green on No. 13 and had to two-putt from 40 feet for bogey. Suddenly, he was 3 over par just four holes into the tournament.

"I got off to a nice start and ran into a little bit of a problem," Woods said. "If I would have just putted normally, I would have shot under par."

It wasn't all bad for Tiger, though. He went for the driver on the 373-yard 14th hole, and the cheers from the green that filtered all the way to the tee told him what happened -- 30 feet short of the flag for a two-putt birdie.

Ernie Els, who could replace Woods as the top-ranked player with a win this week, birdied five his first eight holes to move to 4 under, shooting a 32 for his first nine. He followed that with birdies on Nos. 2 and 3 -- his 11th and 12th holes of the day -- to move to 6 under, which is where he finished, shooting a 66.

"I'm really happy with that," said Els, who made seven birdies and one bogey. "I'm not sure if we expected to shoot 6 under around this course, but that was nice."

Els, the runner-up to Phil Mickelson at The Masters and second at the British Open to Todd Hamilton, also started on the back side and birdied two of the first three holes, before taking a bogey at the 13th.

Vijay Singh, another favorite this week after winning his last start at the Buick Open, easily outplayed Woods and John Daly in their grouping, firing a 5-under 67. Singh is once again using the standard putter which won him the Buick, rather than the belly putter he used for two-plus seasons prior to that.

With a win this week, Singh would clinch his fifth title of the season, which would be a personal high and make him the front-runner for Player of the Year on tour.

Luke Donald leads all afternoon starters still on the course. He's currently 5 under through 12 holes, despite bogeys at Nos. 1 and 7.

Scott Verplank, hoping a finish in the top 10 this week nets him a place on the U.S. Ryder Cup team, got it to 6 under, before bogeying his final hole for a 5-under 67.

Jay Haas, currently 10th in the U.S. Ryder Cup standings, birdied three of his final eight holes to shoot an opening-round 68. A top 10 finish in the tournament would most likely qualify the 50-year-old for the team.

Fellow Americans Loren Roberts and Chris DiMarco, along with Irishman Padraig Harrington, each shot 4-under 68s. Harrington, playing the front nine as the back side, birdied the final three holes of his round.

Each of those three is seeking his first career major victory, though they have all had their close calls.

John Daly, who needs a fourth place finish and some help to gain a Ryder Cup berth, was mired at 7 over.through 15 holes.

The early starters probably would catch the better conditions on opening day. The forecast called for winds of 20 miles an hour later in the afternoon. That prompted tournament officials to move up the tee boxes on three of the longer holes on the course -- the 507-yard par-4 No. 8, the 618-yard par-5 No. 11 and the 500-yard par-4 No. 18.

That meant the course, which initially was set at 7,514 yards, would play to 7,369 yards in the opening round.

Phil Mickelson, seeking his second major win of the season, was among the players teeing it up in the afternoon.

If not for a three-putt from 5 feet on the 71st hole in the U.S. Open and a missed 4-footer on the back nine in the final round at Royal Troon last month, Mickelson might be going this week for the final leg of the Grand Slam.

"I'm three shots away from having the Grand Slam," he said. "Certainly, I think about that. I don't dwell on it."

Whistling Straits is enough to grab all his attention, even with the shorter distance. And it's somewhat of a mystery.

Skip Kendall, who grew up in Wisconsin, had the honor of hitting the opening shot from the first tee, and it drifted right into one of the 1,400 bunkers. No matter -- he managed to get par, a score that probably won't draw too many complaints this week.

Then again, no one knows what to expect on a course that is intimidating at first sight, and never gets easy. Players might get a better idea in the first round.

Given his career -- 0-for-42 as a professional in the majors until the Masters -- Mickelson doesn't mind waiting.

The lefty who once was the best golfer never to win a major now seems to do everything right in the majors.

It all started with that 18-foot putt that curled into the side of the cup on the 18th green at Augusta in April. He followed up the Masters win with a runner-up finish to Retief Goosen in the U.S. Open and third place in the British Open, where he had never finished in the top 10.

"I think it would have been quite a bit tougher, absolutely, having those close chances, having the lead in the final nine and not winning ... had I not won the Masters," Mickelson said.

His 1-2-3 finishes in the majors has sent his stock and confidence soaring. He also won the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic and is second on the money list with more than $5 million.

"I'm certainly more confident in my preparation for the majors now that I seem to have found a process that has been effective," he said.

He was asked this week if he thought there would ever be another dominant player in the majors.

"I certainly I would not rule it out," he said. "In fact, I would expect it to happen again."

Mickelson's game plan includes spending hours plotting how to play certain holes, which ones to lay up on, which ones to attack.

He's also embraced the idea that length isn't everything. A controlled fade off the tee has helped him hit more fairways and he no longer reaches for the driver on every hole.

But he might not have a choice this week.

Whistling Straits promises to test the will and wisdom of the best players in the world. The finishing hole could be a three-shot hole if the wind is strong and into the players.

"Certainly, 18 is not a par 4, so you can't get hung up on, `I have to make four there every day or I won't win the tournament,"' Davis Love III said.

Also part of the mix are hundreds of bunkers, massive undulating greens, narrow winding fairways, fescue-filled rough and, above all, the treacherous winds blowing off Lake Michigan.

Wind and intermittent rain hit the course Wednesday, but things were expected to improve through the remainder of the week, with highs in the 70s and 80s by the weekend.

What's more, no one has ever played a competitive round at the links-style course, so no one is sure what to expect.

"I think it adds certainly to the suspense," Love said. "It might be good for the experienced players because they say, hey, we don't know what's going to happen, so we are just going to go play and not have any target score or expectations in our head."

This is the final major of the season, aptly named "Glory's Last Shot."

It's Woods' last chance to snap his slump in majors -- he's winless in the last nine. Another also-ran finish in a major -- his best finish this year was a tie for ninth in the British Open -- also could end Woods' streak of five straight player of the year titles.

Singh is looking for his fifth win of the season, but he is 0-for-18 in the majors since winning the 2000 Masters.

Els has made more than $4 million this year and a win here would likely push the Big Easy past Tiger in the world rankings.

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