Sweat soaked through Tiger Woods's shirt when he arrived at Hazeltine National Golf Club's 10th tee on Thursday morning, preparing to play his first hole of the US PGA Championship. It seemed a bit strange, given it was 8.30, a little breeze blew across the plains, and the sun hadn't started cooking yet. Plus, there was no reason for Woods to feel any pressure. His game was with him, right at his side. He just needed to unveil it.
"There are times I've put it together," Woods said later, "and I've had some pretty good margins of victory. When I'm playing well, I usually don't make that many mistakes." That is, as humbly as the best player in golf can put it, a way of saying that he might not only win this week, but win big. The first step in such a quest came with a nearly flawless five-under-par 67 on Thursday, when Woods conquered the behemoth that is Hazeltine. He didn't make a bogey. He missed only two of 14 fairways. He hit 15 of 18 greens. He did not, as he said, make many mistakes.
"It's just one of those things," Woods said, "where I keep plodding along." Woods's plodding is everyone else's sparkling. Though it's not like he grabbed the lead and hid in the cornfields with it. He has a one-shot advantage over defending champion Padraig Harrington, with whom he played. It is an unusual spot for him in a major, one that could be ominous for the rest of the field. In 50 major championships over the course of his career, Woods has now held at least a share of the lead just seven times. And lest anyone of his 155 opponents hope that he fritter it away, they should know the last time that happened was in 1998, when he gave back first-round leads at the British Open and the US PGA Championship. The last four instances Woods led after the first round - the 2000 US Open and US PGA, the 2002 US Open and the 2005 British Open - he never trailed the rest of the week.
Here, then, are some scary words. "I played really well today," Woods said. Despite that early sweat, he played in a nice, calm atmosphere as well. Listed at 7,674 yards - the longest course in major championship history - Hazeltine is supposed to be brutish, forcing players to lay up on its interminable par fives and making them take long irons into some of its stressful par fours. But on a warm Thursday morning that featured a light breeze, the ball sailed, the wide fairways welcomed it, and the greens, still receptive after a huge downpour over last weekend, stuck.
"The golf course, this morning, it was there to be had," said Robert Allenby, one of six players who shot 69 to sit two behind Woods. "And I believe it's only going to get tougher from here on." That proved to be true. In the afternoon, the wind picked up. There was a bit of rain. The greens got rougher. Vijay Singh, who won this title in 1998 and 2004, and David Toms, the 2001 champion, were the best of the afternoon finishers, each with 69.
None of those concerns bothered the group that featured Woods, who has won this title four times, Harrington, who won it last year, when Woods was out following knee surgery, and Rich Beem, who took the US PGA title at Hazeltine in 2002. Even Beem played well, overcoming a sloppy double bogey on No 3 to shoot a one-under 71. "Just a couple of guys just having a nice, quiet three-ball day out there," Beem said. "Of course, with about 30,000 people screaming their heads off."
That's slightly different than the last time Woods and Harrington played together, on Sunday at the Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, Ohio. There, they made up the final pairing. There, they engaged in a stirring duel, one eventually taken by Woods. And there, the conversation, in the final round, consisted of the following, according to Woods: "I've got a Titleist," Harrington said. "I've got a Nike," Woods said.
"Good luck today," they said to each other. And then they played. Harrington's lone bogey came at the par-four first, which he, Woods and Beem played as their 10th hole. It was the latest evidence that Harrington's overhauled swing, which he fought most of the year, is now clicking. "I'm very happy," Harrington said. "First day of a major, it's always good to keep yourself in there. I think I probably did a little bit more than that."
Woods, of course, did too. His first birdie came at the longest par four on the course, the 518-yard 12th. He birdied three of the four par fives, though he reached only one of them in two, and made a 20-footer on No 2 for another birdie. The only time he appeared in serious trouble was at the first, when he hit what he called a "terrible" into trees on the right. But he got a good bounce, made a nice pitch up over a bunker, and saved par.
"The whole idea is not to make that many mistakes," Woods said. "All the majors that I've won, I've made very few mistakes for the week." He made hardly a mistake on Thursday. Tomorrow night, if he's saying the same thing, he'll likely have his 15th major championship, no sweat. * Los Angeles Times