Darren Clarke had described Whistling Straits as "brutally difficult" earlier in the week and said, "I didn't realize there were that many par 6s on one golf course." On Thursday, Clarke made a mockery of his doomsday predictions, opening his first round of the 86th PGA Championship with four consecutive birdies and shooting 7-under-par 65 for a one-shot lead over Ernie Els and Justin Leonard in the final major championship of the season.
With the breezes off Lake Michigan easing a bit from the wind-blown practice rounds and soft greens allowing players to shoot at pins in relatively benign locations, PGA of America officials also gave the field of 156 a break by shortening the longest course in major history (listed at 7,514 yards) by about 200 yards. That likely will change over the weekend, but there were few complaints about the set-up, not even from Tiger Woods. He opened with a 3-over 75, a serious blow in his attempt to win his first major since the 2002 U.S. Open.
"You can get it going here; there's no doubt about it," said Woods, who began with a birdie, had a double bogey on his next hole and putted "atrociously. . . . The greens are soft, the balls are holding and if you're hitting the ball well, you can get it in there close. You can be aggressive. I have to putt better. All of the normal short putts, I missed. I'd be shooting under par. Unfortunately it just didn't work out."
Clarke, who said this course feels like seaside golf in his native Northern Ireland, shot 31 on the front and had nine birdies overall. He'll need to keep up that torrid pace if he hopes to become the first European to win this title since Scotland's Tommy Armour in 1930, when the tournament was a match-play event.
Clarke's first-round playing partners also were giving the gallery full value for the price of admission. Leonard had seven birdies, five on his back-nine 31, the lowest score on that side all day. And Korean K.J. Choi started his round with five consecutive birdies, added one more on the back nine and finished at 4-under 68, the same score posted by 50-year-old Jay Haas and Chris DiMarco, both hoping to post enough points this week to qualify automatically for the American Ryder Cup team.
Another Cup hopeful, Scott Verplank, was in a group of four at 67 that included leading PGA Tour money leader Vijay Singh. Masters champion Phil Mickelson, the runner-up in the U.S. Open and third at the British Open last month, opened with three straight birdies and was very much in the mix with a 3-under 69.
"There were good shots and hitting at flags all over the place," said Clarke, who added that a session this week with short-game teaching specialist Stan Utley helped his putting significantly. "When your playing partners are playing that well, it's very easy to keep concentrating on your own game. They hit a good shot in, you want to hit a good shot in. It was beneficial to all of us."
Said Leonard: "It was fun to watch those guys. They were playing so well, I kind of got sucked into it on the back nine. I think we all definitely fed off each other, a fun group to be part of."
Els also was having a fine time making seven birdies and getting himself into contention once again after finishing second in the Masters and British Open, and tying for ninth in the U.S. Open after entering the final round only two strokes behind. He admitted earlier in the week that it took him a while to get over the British Open at Royal Troon, where his missed 10-foot birdie putt on the final hole of regulation relegated him to a four-hole playoff that he lost to Todd Hamilton by a shot.
"I'm fine," Els said. "I'm just going along. I can't bring back what happened, and though I think about it every now and again, it's done. It's history. I can't do anything about it. I've got another chance this week, and I'm very excited about that."
Els was most appreciative of tournament officials' decision to cut back the length of three holes -- the par-4 eighth from 507 to 468 yards; the par-5 11th from 618 to 563 yards; and the par-4 18th from 500 to 449 yards.
During his practice round Tuesday, Els said he hit a driver off the tee at the 18th and a 3-wood second shot that barely got to the front portion of the green. On Thursday, with the hole 51 yards shorter, he hit 3-wood and an 8-iron to the green and made a routine par.
"It's a very tough golf course," Els insisted afterward. "But if we have decent weather, we can play this course. This morning, it wasn't blowing as hard as it was in the practice rounds. The direction of the breeze changed, and it made some of the par 3s and par 5s play a little easier. If you're going to play this golf course off the tips the first two rounds with such a big field . . . you're going to have a hard time finishing in 5-51/2 hours. I think they did the correct thing."
Several prominent players were not doing the correct things. Woods, who started on the back nine, snap-hooked his drive off the 11th tee into the deep left rough and said afterward he was bothered by the click of a camera at the top of his backswing. His second shot advanced his ball about 100 yards into high grass, and he eventually three-putted for double-bogey 7. He lipped out a four-footer and took bogey at the 12th, then hit a poor chip at the 13th that forced two more putts from 40 feet for a bogey that left him 4 over for his first four holes.
His playing partner, John Daly, took himself totally out of the picture with 42 on his opening nine, including a quadruple-bogey 8 at the 18th, where his 2-iron drive landed in a fairway bunker. He barely got it out, hit a third shot into more deep grass and eventually three-putted on his way to an 81.
"My preparation was perfect," said Daly, who had hoped to contend this week and possibly catch the eye of Ryder Cup Captain Hal Sutton, who will make his wild-card picks Monday. "The way I had been playing, I was honestly thinking I could win this golf tournament . . . and I love this golf course. . . . I played three bad holes, but with three pretty good swings off the tees. That just shows how treacherous this course is."