When the fog eventually lifted to allow the 92nd USPGA Championship to tee off here yesterday a familiar figure emerged to make a familiar march to the top of the leaderboard – before what has recently become a familiar slip took him straight back down again. Nevertheless, compared to last week's horror show, Tiger Woods' 71 was the stuff of Hollywood dreams.
Certainly it enjoyed a happy ending. The birdie on his last hole (the ninth) was classic Woods. He span it in to seven feet, rolled in the putt and made his way to the journalists to make his pronouncement. "Welcome to golf – it's a fickle game," he said. "Guys shoot 59 and don't win."
True. But the guys who shoot 74-72-75-77 do tend to end up near the back of the field as Woods was when last-but-one on Sunday. So as he stood there, three behind the early clubhouse pacesetters, America’s Bubba Watson and Italy’s Francesco Molinari, his enthusiasm was understandable. "I played too good not to shoot under par," he said. "Even to have end up at level par would have been very disappointing." He had just signed for an under-par total for the first time in eight rounds.
Yet the start hinted at something more special. Three birdies in his opening five holes took Woods to the head of the field. How Corey Pavin must have enjoyed that sight, however brief it was to last. The US Ryder Cup captain could do with his problem player doing him a favour on Lake Michigan in this, America's final qualifying event. To leap into the eight automatic berths, Woods requires, at the very least, a top-10 finish. And the first blows of the year's final major sent the hopes soaring.
The three-hour delay (which was to ensure only half of their field completed their first day) kept him waiting, although he seemed rather pleased. "I got to eat three breakfasts, so that's always good," he said. He proceeded to gobble up the greens. A 10-footer on his opening hole (the 10th), an eight-footer on the 621-yard 11th and a nine-footer on the 13th put him at the head of the leaderboard. This was the first time this torrid season that Woods had appeared on the highest rung and, for those moments, Tiger was looking like Tiger again, particularly on the greens. "I felt so much more comfortable over the putter," he said. "I got my lines back. I got everything lined up where I could release the blade, toe is moving again, which is great, something I like to feel. It felt good."
But then the errors crept in and Woods was forced to fight them away. He did so quite spectacularly on the par-five fifth (his 14th) after he snap-hooked his drive into the hazard. His rescue attempts were not so successful on the 15th, second and sixth. Mere blips, in his opinion. "This certainly gives me confidence, because I was able to control my trajectory," he said. "When the wind blows like this, you can't just hit the ball in the air. Driving the ball, I was able to control it both ways."
Woods is not the only professional who came to Wisconsin with a sense of urgency. Sergio Garcia must win this week if he wants to make his sixth appearance in the Ryder Cup. That was the uncompromising message from the Europe captain, Colin Montgomerie. "Unless Sergio finishes extremely high here, in the top one, we won't be seeing him at Celtic Manor," said the 47-year-old. "Yes, he has to win this week. Sergio has said he will take a two-month break if he isn't in the Ryder Cup and I think that's right. He's got stale with the game." After a 78, Garcia may as well pack for his holidays.
In truth, Montgomerie could do without another high-profile European requiring a wild-card. With three events to go, Padraig Harrington, Paul Casey, Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson and Robert Karlsson are all out of the nine automatics. Casey escaped with a 72 after chipping in twice, while Harrington, just €13,000 behind Miguel Angel Jimenez in the last qualifying spot, was sloppy in his 75. Meanwhile, Molinari showed no sign of relaxing his grip on a spot at Celtic Manor. He could toe his younger brother into the team. Edoardo did his own chances no harm as he matched Woods.
These should have been the issues distracting Montgomerie's mind yesterday as he began his own competition. As it is there were more pressing personal problems rattling around his cranium as he laboured to five over in the 14 holes he managed to fisnhed before darkness dropped.
He awoke here yesterday to discover the national newspaper for which he is a columnist had revealed the Scot had obtained an injunction to halt media revelations about his private life. He and his wife, Gaynor Knowles, were pictured on the front page on their wedding day two years ago. As the salacious rumours continued to circulate on the range, this was the last thing Montgomerie would have wanted. The European Tour felt obliged to issue a statement, backing their besieged skipper.
"We have absolute confidence in Colin as Europe's captain," said Richard Hills, the Ryder Cup director. "We look forward to him standing on the first tee at Celtic Manor when the 2010 Ryder Cup starts exactly 50 days from now." Just the 53 days to go then, Monty.
USPGA early first-round leaderboard
4 under (18 holes unless stated):
B Watson, F Molinari (It).
J Day (Aus), R Moore (It), C Howell (14).
J Furyk (18), K Kyung-tae (S Kor), M Laird (Sco), J Merrick, M Sim (Aus), B Davis (Eng) (17), G Bourdy (Fra) (14), D Horsey (Eng) (9), D Hutsell (4).
S Elkington (Aus), S Gallacher (Sco), E Molinari (Ita) (17), R Palmer (17), T Jaidee (Thai) (16), B Gay (15), T Woods.