GOLF / Faldo rescues his round in good company: US PGA Championship / Stadler and Sauers set the pace as the defending champion struggles

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NICK FALDO was back in his natural habitat yesterday, sitting comfortably on the leader board. The world No 1 made an encouraging start to the 74th US PGA Championship at Bellerive here with a first-round score of 68, three under par. It was not a vintage Faldo performance, and under the circumstances, his score was something of a bonus.

'I didn't play as well as I would have liked,' he said. 'My legs were flying all over the place. I'm very pleased to have shot three under. I got away with it quite well.'

Faldo, who was one stroke behind Craig Stadler and Gene Sauers, learned after finishing his round that his wife, Gill, was suffering from a severe migraine. They travelled together in an ambulance to St John's Mercy Hospital on the outskirts of the golf course. A hospital spokesman said she would probably be released later in the day.

The Americans have held a near monopoly on the season's fourth and last major championship. In the previous 73 US PGAs there have been only six victories by overseas players. In the first round here Faldo formed part of a dream team. The Open champion played with Fred Couples, the Masters winner, and Tom Kite, the US Open champion, and thousands of spectators followed the adventures of the threeball. Faldo may not have been satisfied with his play but he was easily the most consistent; Couples had an extraordinary round of ups and downs and Kite was going along nicely until he met a watery grave on the penultimate hole.

There are three first-aid stations on the course to accommodate victims of what everybody thought would be a classic Midwest heatwave. In the event the weather was sufficiently cool for Faldo, at one point, to put on a cardigan. There was a light breeze and conditions were kind but even so Bellerive, which measures 7,148 yards, is dotted with pitfalls. 'It's a tough course,' Ian Woosnam, who finished at two over par, said. 'Too tough for me.'

Faldo, who has won his last two tournaments, the Open Championship at Muirfield and the Scandinavian Masters, began with a bogey five after going from bunker to rough to bunker. He had his first birdie at the long fourth despite driving into a bunker. He was on the green in three and holed out from 20 feet. He went back to one over par when he missed the green to the right at the fifth. If his long game was unimpressive by his standards, his putting was invaluable. At the seventh he holed from around 40 feet for a birdie three and picked up another stroke at the eighth where he nearly sank a wedge shot from 95 yards.

At the difficult ninth, Faldo drove into the rough on the right and then deliberately played into a bunker in front of the green. He duly got up and down from the sand to save par and went to the turn in 35. He came back in 33 and on only one occasion has he scored better in the first round of a US PGA. Faldo birdied the 12th by sinking a 12-foot putt and the 16th where he rolled one in from more than 20 feet.

Faldo particularly enjoyed the company of Couples, a player whose attitude he admires. There was nothing to admire in Couples's performance at the third hole. The American missed the green and the ball bounced into a lake. By the time he had finished with the hole he was left with a triple-bogey six. He rallied with birdies at the fifth, eighth and ninth and had two more at the 15th and 17th. There was nothing orthodox in his 69 and on virtually every hole there was an adventure. It could have been a 79.

Kite, the richest money-winner in the history of the game, paid the price for attempting to circumnavigate a lake which fronts the green at the 17th. If you clear it with your second shot you have the chance of an eagle; if you do not you are looking at an ugly duckling. Kite didn't. His approach shot splashed into the water and he recorded a double-bogey seven. He finished alongside Woosnam on two over par.

Woosnam, who has not played a competitive round of golf since the Open Championship last month, said he was rusty. He was even rustier after hitting his tee shot into the water at the third. It cost him a double-bogey five and at the eighth he had a bogey six after hitting a tree. Colin Montgomerie, third in the US Open behind Kite and Jeff Sluman, shot 72. 'I played better than the score suggests,' he said. 'I missed only two fairways and it cost me three strokes.'

John Daly, the defending champion who beat Crooked Stick into submission 12 months ago, was finding Bellerive a different proposition. He went to the turn in 38 and continued to struggle over the back nine. Daly came in with a 76 and he will have to get the Killer Whale working today if he is to stand a chance of making the cut.

(Photograph omitted)