Tiger (75), Daly (81) stumble from get-go
HAVEN, Wis. -- So much for Whistling Straits leaving everyone in dire straits.
After three days of hysteria that this PGA Championship might be the toughest ever, Darren Clarke made short work of the longest course in major history Thursday with birdies on his first four holes for a 7-under 65 and a one-shot lead over Ernie Els and Justin Leonard.
Yes, these guys are good.
But the course just wasn't so bad.
The PGA lopped off 145 yards by moving up three tee boxes. The hole locations were so generous that no one complained, a rarity in professional golf. And Mother Nature helped out, sending only a gentle breeze off Lake Michigan instead of whipping wind that had everyone so nervous.
"I didn't know what to expect coming in here," Jay Haas said after his 68. "It seemed like one of the hardest courses we ever played. If that was the case, (7 under) wouldn't be leading the tournament."
When Clarke polished off his round of nine birdies, he had the lowest score under par in the opening round of a major since Chris DiMarco also had a 7-under 65 at the '01 Masters. That was the year before Augusta National was beefed up.
"We got fortunate with the conditions," Clarke said. "The greens were holding. We were able to fire at flags that we were not able to do earlier in the week."
Remember all that talk about players desperate to shoot par? Thirty-nine broke par in the first round -- including 21 rounds in the 60s -- and 21 others shot even par.
Tiger Woods was not among them. He was 3 over after his first four holes, had an "astrocious" time putting and wound up with a 75, leaving him in a tie for 104th in the 155-man field.
Winless in his last nine majors, Woods now has another streak to worry about. With a double bogey on his second hole and 32 putts in his round, Woods failed to break 70 in the first round of a major for the 10th straight time, and starts the second round in serious jeopardy of ending his streak of 127 consecutive cuts.
Vijay Singh, playing with Woods and John Daly (81), got himself into position to end an 0-for-18 drought in the majors with a 5-under 67, putting him in a large group that included Ryder Cup hopefuls Scott Verplank and Luke Donald, along with Briny Baird.
Masters champion Phil Mickelson opened with three straight birdies in the afternoon and shot 69, a good start in his bid to become the first player to finish in the top 3 in all four majors in the same year.
"Without wind, all that trouble -- all those bunkers you see -- aren't really in play for us," Mickelson said. "The course played very susceptible to low scores, to birdies."
British Open champion Todd Hamilton shot 72.
"The course wasn't as bad as advertised," Hamilton said. "They were pretty easy on us. You can tell by the scores."
Singh, who slipped out a side door to avoid speaking to reporters after his 67, later told a PGA Tour official that he thought the tournament went soft.
"I think they kind of went a little too easy," Singh said. "I enjoyed playing it, and I think it's going to get tougher from here in."
The PGA champion has been under par 41 times in the 46 years since the tournament switched to stroke play, and most everyone figured Whistling Straits would be one of those exceptions. The wind can be wicked off Lake Michigan, the greens are enormous with severe slopes and it's not easy to get the ball close to the hole.
But it didn't take long to realize this wasn't the monster course that had been predicted.
"I think 2-under yesterday morning would have looked unbelieveable," Charles Howell III said after his 70. Instead, he was tied for 22nd.
Clarke, the 35-year-old from Northern Ireland, wasted no time quieting all the talk that players would be begging for mercy.
He hit a lob wedge into 12 feet for birdie on the opening hole and was off to the races. He just missed the par-5 second hole in two shots for an easy birdie, hit 8-iron into 18 feet for birdie on the third and followed that with a driver and a 9-iron on the 493-yard fourth hole to 12 feet for another birdie.
"The greens were soft, and some of the pin positions were ... I would not say generous, but reasonable," he said. "There were birdie opportunities out there. Fortunately, I made the most of them."
He didn't have much choice. The biggest threat came from his own group -- Leonard and K.J. Choi, who birdied his first five holes and wound up with a 68. They combined to shoot 17 under par.
Els, seeking redemption at the PGA from a season of major heartache, also warmed up quickly by hitting 8-iron to 2 feet on the par-3 12th and making birdie on two other par 3s -- a 15-footer on the menacing 17th, a 5-footer on No. 3.
"If we have decent conditions, we can score," Els said.
An example of how the conditions changed came on the par-4 18th, listed as one of three 500-yard par 4s. The tee box was moved up 51 yards to play at only 449 yards, and the wind was at the players' backs. During a practice round, Els smashed a drive and still had to hit a 3-wood to reach the green. On Thursday, he hit a 3-wood through the fairway, and an 8-iron to the green.
"It's a very tough layout," Els said. "I just felt that we had a break today in the weather."
Nothing seems to help Woods, who once dominated the majors but now saves them for his worst putting. He started with a birdie, but fell apart by hitting into the left rough twice, the right rough once and three-putting from the fringe for a double bogey. He followed that with two more bogeys and was 3 over just four holes into the final major.
The only bright spot?
He hit driver on the 373-yard 14th hole, and a huge cheer that started from around the green and filtered all the way to the tee told him he was on the green, some 30 feet away for a two-putt birdie.
Still, the focus Friday will be on whether he makes the cut, not whether he contends.
And the curiosity continues. Whistling Straits is still a beast, and all it takes is a little wind, firmer greens, some tougher pins and tee boxes returned to their regular positions, and everything could change.
"About the time this is over, I don't think the scores are going to be all that low," Verplank said. "But they're not going to have to do something idiotic like the USGA did" at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills.
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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