Whistling Straits not bad, after all

Collection of low scores led by Clarke's 7-under 65 highlight PGA first round


August 13, 2004|By Mark Herrmann | Mark Herrmann,NEWSDAY

HAVEN, Wis. - The way golfers had been talking about Whistling Straits all week, you would have thought it should have been called Dire Straits. Players made it sound like the most diabolical test of golf ever invented and hinted they would be lucky to keep staggering to the end of the PGA Championship. Then they started playing yesterday, and they wound up whistling a whole new tune.

Tees were up, the wind was down, pin positions were benign and first-round scores were super. A barrage against par was led by none other than Darren Clarke, who shot 7-under-par 65 only three days after he compared the course to a collection of the 18 most difficult links holes in the British Isles.

Golfers went directly at the Straits. K.J. Choi, playing in a group that went off at 7:30 a.m. local time, birdied the first five holes. Clarke, playing with him, birdied the first four. Justin Leonard, the third member of the threesome, caught the spirit on the back nine, making five birdies to finish at 6-under, tied for second with Ernie Els.

In a sign that today's touring pros are much better at golf than at making predictions, 39 players broke par on the supposedly intimidating course.

"Yeah, I'm a little surprised these scores are as good as they are," said Scott Verplank, whose 5-under 67 put him in a tie for fourth with Vijay Singh, Luke Donald and Briny Baird. "But if you keep the ball in front of you, keep it on the beautifully manicured fairways and greens, then you can play out here. If you start getting into the stuff where you can twist your ankle, then you're going to have a real problem."

Not everyone had a great day. Tiger Woods, despite hitting the 373-yard, par-4 14th green with his drive and two-putting for birdie, shot 75 and is 10 strokes back. He didn't blame it on the distraction from a photographer that made him back away from his tee shot on the 11th (his second hole of the day), which preceded a double-bogey 7. He blamed it on short putts such as the 4-foot birdie attempt he missed on No. 15.

Woods knew a score was there to be grabbed. "You can get it going here, there's no doubt about that," Woods said. "The greens are soft, the balls are holding, and if you're hitting the ball well, you can get the ball in there close."

Give players credit for being able to hit accurate shots to greens that Phil Mickelson (3 under) called "immaculate." Clarke, showing the benefits of lessons from short-game guru Stan Utley, repeatedly pitched and chipped close and made the putts.

"The way the par 5s were playing, there were birdie opportunities out there," Clarke said. "Fortunately, I made the most of them."

Good play tends to breed more good play. "Watching Darren and K.J. birdie the first hour, it was fun. I kind of got sucked into it on the back nine," Leonard said.

The setup was generous. Possibly fearing forecasts for a fierce northwest wind or perhaps reacting to the talk of how hard the course would be, PGA of America officials moved up tees so much that the record-long 7,514-yard layout played at 7,369. Pins were hardly inaccessible.

Which leads to the question, after the caterwauling about the U.S. Open setup at Shinnecock Hills, shouldn't players admit they got away with something?

"You're using the most extreme example of not-knowing-what-you're-doing," Verplank said. "By the time this is over, I don't think the scores are going to be all that low. They are not going to have to do something completely idiotic like the USGA did."

Was Whistling Straits too simple?

"No, no, no, no," said Choi, who was at 4-under.

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