All through the first round of the Booz Allen Classic yesterday, players were flirting with fantasy, starting with former champion Rich Beem shortly before 8 a.m. And at about 5:45 p.m. came the topper: Charles Howell III approached the tee on his final hole at TPC at Avenel, the par-3 ninth, knowing that a hole-in-one would give him a 59.

Howell settled for a par, but that was good enough for a tournament-course record 10-under-par 61 that included two eagles on his back nine.

"The best way to describe it is you get a feeling that you can do nothing wrong," he said. "It's just a feeling that no matter what you ultimately are deciding to do with any shot -- and with a putt, the way you see it breaking -- no matter what happens you have a feeling that you can't do anything wrong."

The round was Howell's best ever in competition, amateur or pro, by a stroke, and broke by one shot the tournament course record of 62 that David Duval crafted in the second round last year. Howell's 28 on the final nine holes, the front nine at Avenel, broke by a shot the tournament record for nine holes. And he had two bogeys on his card.

The 61 equals the tournament record that Jerry McGee set in the 1979 Kemper Open at the Quail Hollow Country Club in Charlotte.

Howell's round was the second-lowest on the PGA Tour this season, behind the 12-under 60 that Robert Gamez had in the third round of the Bob Hope Classic. It was the lowest opening round on tour, by two shots, and his 28 was second on tour to Gamez's 27.

Howell admitted that 59 briefly intruded on his focus as he walked off his next-to-last hole, No. 8 at Avenel, after about a 15-footer with a slight left-to-right break for yet another birdie. But he needed a hole-in-one on the 166-yard No. 9 to get it -- and two-putted from about 35 feet after his tee ball landed far short of where he thought it would in flight.

So Howell enters today with a three-shot lead over former champion Beem, who was 8 under with four holes left but botched a three-footer for par at No. 18, and former St. Albans star Olin Browne, who had a 30 on his final nine holes. Veteran Jeff Sluman was in fourth at 65.

Conditions were ideal for scoring, with the greens holding well after recent rain and almost no wind all day. Fifty-two players broke 70, and 91 beat the par 71.

"The greens are in the best shape that I've seen in all my years here," Browne said.

Howell hardly had anything memorable in mind after two bogeys semi-spoiled four birdies on his first six holes. But on the front nine, he was in-the-zone torrid, finishing it with eight consecutive 3s. The eagles came on the 622-yard No. 2, when his 5-wood stopped 15 feet from the hole, and on the 520-yard No. 6, when a 5-iron also ended at 15 feet.

"It's definitely my best putting day, no question about it," he said. "It's strange because the fun part about golf is hitting good shots, being able to hit a high cut when you want to [and] being able to hit a draw when you want to. It's all of the neat things that you're able to do with the ball when you're playing well.

"But the thing that ultimately decides winners and not winners is the putter."

Browne and veteran Blaine McCallister, in a group at 66 that includes Tom Lehman, are especially in need of a fine tournament. Browne is 203rd on the money list, McCallister 170th. McCallister spent last year on the Nationwide Tour after some decently solid seasons on the regular circuit in the 1990s.

"I had to introduce myself" to the Golf Channel's Mike Ritz, he joked. "'Hi, remember me?' I know I still can do it. I know I'm grinding hard to do it . . . my health's been fine. My golf hasn't been worth a damn."

McCallister's ride was the most pulsating, starting with the missed four-footer for par at the 393-yard No. 1. In his first nine holes, he made five birdies, including one from a foot after a 248-yard 5-wood from the tee on No. 3 -- two bogeys and just two pars. And one of those pars was a 10-footer on the 520-yard No. 6 after hitting his second shot, from the middle of the fairway, into the water.

While Beem avoided thinking about some absurdly low score late yesterday morning after getting to 8 under after 14 holes with an up-and-down birdie from a fairway bunker, others dreamed for him. One was playing partner John Cook.

"Cookie says to me, 'Oh, boy, here we go,' " said Beem, referring to the 25-foot birdie putt that followed the 85-yard wedge that followed the 4-iron tree shot that plopped into sand off the left side of the fairway. "That was probably one of the all-time greatest birdies I've had."

Cook and a gallery that kept growing with each birdie thought a 62 was possible. Instead of the one birdie and three pars that would have done that, Beem parred three consecutive holes and botched a three-foot par putt on No. 18 for the 7-under 64. That was his only bogey, and his ball striking was so pure that five of his birdie putts were no longer than 12 feet.

Beem seems as familiar as the hills at Avenel, having won the title in 1999 in his first look at the course and finishing second two years ago after missing two straight cuts.

His $906,300 put him atop the tournament's money list, some $642,000 ahead of Phil Mickelson and about $787,000 ahead of Fred Couples. (Not to mention $906,300 in front of Tiger Woods.)

"They're all going in right now, like '99," Beem said of his run of birdies that had him out in 6-under 30 and 7 under after a four-foot birdie at the 374-yard No. 10. The course "fits my eye . . . and it shows."

Charles Howell III watches tee shot during round in which his 10-under 61 set a tournament-course record. It was a 22-shot swing from his most recent round.Former PGA champion Rich Beem, who cashed the first-place check from the Booz Allen in 1999 when it was the Kemper Open, blasts out of a bunker guarding the No. 15 green on the way to a 7-under 64.