All week before the tournament began today, the competitors in the 62nd PGA Championship listed accurate driving as the key to success on Oak Hill County Club's East Course. And, today, a number of players who shot 68s and 69s told horror stories of drives knocked six inches off the fairway into deep, rough.
Then, late this afternoon, after lightning caused a 35-minute delay, Craig (The Walrus) Stadler took the first-round lead with a three-under-par 67 in which he failed to hit six fairways.
Five players trail Stadler by a stroke -- Gil Morgan, whose putting has been sour for the past year; Howard Twitty, the hottest PGA Tour player this past month; Curtis Strange, the tour's No. 4 money winner who salvaged a good score out of a mediocre round; Bob Murphy, who would surpass $1 million in career earnings with a victory here, and Bobby Walzel, a most unlikely candidate for the leader board.
Stadler overcame his wayward driving with strong iron play, some remarkable recovery shots and dynamic, confident putting.
"I either got a break and got good lies or hit it far enough off line that I hit it where people were walking," he said. "I haven't had any I couldn't advance. I can get it to most of these greens from anywhere I hit it."
Stadler's score today was superb by any standard on this tight, 6,964-yard course. But it was more notable since it was the only sub-par round posted by an afternoon starter. Among those who struggled in then were Lee Trevino, with 74, and Tom Watson, with a 75 which he failed to make a birdie.
Spike marks on the greens made it more difficult for the final half of the field to putt. For instance, Watson hit the first 11 greens in regulation and was one over par. The course yielded eight sub-par scores in the morning and six more players shot par, including Jack Nicklus, an early starter who did not putt well, and Washington's Lee Elder.
Walzel missed the cut three times and did not qualify another time in his last five tour events, and got in this event as an alternate. He acknowleged that his wedge game is weak and said after today's round: "After two practice rounds here, I felt if I shot an even-par round here, it would be a miracle."
For all five 68 shooters and also for the three players at 67 -- Ben Crenshaw, Hale Irwin and defending champion David Graham -- the key to their rounds was keeping the ball in play off the tee.
Despite their start, neither Watson nor Trevino feels he is out of contention and many in the field agree.
"I made the prediction that the winner will shoot 73 or 74 one round," Trevino said. "I think it's impossible to keep it in the 69-to-71 range over four rounds."
Trevino's problem today was not his driving but his club selection on approach shots. He said he frequently overclubbed. "If you're over a green here, you're going to bogey a lot of holes, which I did today. I even went against my game plan, because if you're above the hole, you have big, breaking putts coming downhill.
Watson double-bogeyed the par-3 15th by hitting a five-iron into the water on the right followed by a poor chip. However, he said, hitting into the water was better than missing the green to the left. "There's only one person who can get it up and dowm from the left, and that's God," said the game's leading money winner.
However, Watson said he did not feel he shot himself out of the tournament. "By the time the tournament's over, I think over par will win it," he said. "I think 280 (even par) is a pretty good target score for me to shoot at."
After using 32 putts and missing seven birdie attempts from 12 feet or closer, Nicklaus, the U.S. Open winner, said "as the week goes on the course will have its revenge. You won't see good scores every day . . . I could shoot just under par tommorrow and be in the lead."
The rain today did little to soften further the course and, thus this redesigned host to the 1956 and 1968 U.S. Opens is expected to play harder as the week goes on, much as Baltusrol did in this year's Open, when early rains softened it enough for Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf to shoot 63 the opening round seven under par. f
Strange predicted: "I see the greens getting much harder real fast. If they get hard, it will speed them up a lot and scores will go up."
However, past performances suggest that this field may not be able to catch the 5-foot-10, 210-pound Stadler who says of his unflattering nickname. "It doesn't bother me. I might be a little overweight."
This was only the fifth time all year that Stadler has shot an opening round in the 60s. After two of them, he won the Bob Hope Desert Classic and the Greater Greensboro Open. He has come from behind only once all year, when he shot 67 the final day to finish second to John Mahaffey in the Kemper Open at Congressional.
The key to Stadler's round today was his ablity to save par three times in a four-hole stretch starting with the difficult, 419-yard, par-4 fifth, where he chipped from the right rough for what was basically your common weekend "gimmie."
On No. 7, he drove into the right rough, hit his approach ino the left rough short of the green, then saved par with a six-footer. At the next hole, his approach shot was half buried in a trap, but he hit a spiffy recovery and sank an eight-footer, one of his 28 putts for the round.
He one-putted eight greens and could have scored even lower, he said, because he missed six birdie putts of 15 feet or less. The only two putts he left short all day hung on the lip; his other second putts were tap-ins of no more than five inches.