Golf: Players make hay as sun shines

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The Independent Online
THE ONLY one of the last nine major championship winners not under par after the first day of the Memorial Tournament was Mark O'Meara - and he was not competing.

PGA Championship winner Davis Love III was tied for the lead with Steve Pate, Trevor Dodds and Joey Sindelar after shooting a six-under-par 66 on Thursday on a firm and fast Muirfield Village layout.

But while players went low in the first round, no one separated from the field as 19 players were bunched within two strokes at the top of the leaderboard. US Open champion Ernie Els was among seven players in at 67. Steve Jones, Tom Lehman and Mark Brooks, who won the US Open, the Open and the PGA in 1996, were two strokes back at 68.

Last year's Open winner, Justin Leonard, was in with a 69 and 1997 Masters champion Tiger Woods had a 70. O'Meara, the winner of this year's Masters, is playing in Germany this week. Even Nick Faldo, who has struggled since winning the 1996 Masters, got in under par with a 71.

"It's amazing, the scores," Love said, after he tested his sore back for the first time in four weeks and made five birdies in seven holes to surge to the top of the leaderboard.

"The greens are perfect, the fairways are perfect, the course played a little shorter than it has in the past," Love said.

The reason the course played shorter was because the soggy sounds familiar to the Memorial Tournament in the past were gone. After rain that delayed, interrupted or cancelled 13 of the possible 36 rounds over the last nine years, the 23rd Memorial opened beneath bright sunshine, presenting the players with a new set of challenges on an extremely fast course.

Among those rising to the occasion were Els, who usually starts playing well about this time of the year.

"You got to be careful out there," Els said about the Jack Nicklaus-designed Muirfield course. "I played with Freddy [Couples] today and we hit so many three woods. You have to keep the ball in play."

While players were hitting eight and nine irons onto greens instead of the five and six irons needed last year, the Muirfield layout required more thought. Instead of just swinging with the driver and tackling saturated greens, players used irons off the tee to fairways that were running fast and they needed the patience to play approaches away from pins that were, in spots, too firm to go after.

Woods got off to a fast start and was three under par after he made an eagle on the par-five fifth hole but slumped to finish on 70, while Nicklaus shot a 74 and was eight strokes off the lead in the tournament he started.

Vijay Singh, who prospered in last year's rain-shortened 54-hole to take the title - a three-wood from the soggy 11th fairway to within inches of the hole for an eagle proving to be the key shot, had a 73 on Thursday. But this was not a soggy Muirfield for the first round.

"It's playing differently than it has for years," Stewart said after a round in which he missed only one fairway on his way to three birdies and an eagle.

With no detrimental weather bearing down on central Ohio, it just might be that Muirfield will play the way Nicklaus designed it for the entire four days. And that could make for the kind of tournament this course has not seen in years.