Tiger Woods is not only chasing history at the PGA championship he must trust that the lessons of the past hold good to keep alive his hopes of a 15th major title. He ended day one six shots behind Jim Furyk's five-under-par clubhouse lead, not the most convincing leap towards nirvana, yet by no means fatal in this precinct.
In the five major championships hosted at Oak Hill only ten scores have finished in red numbers after four days. Put another way that is ten out of approximately 325 totals assembled across those heavy duty weekends. The record low, six under par, was posted by Jack Nicklaus 33 years ago at this championship, aged 40, and that after a putting lesson from his eldest son, Jack Jnr.
On the basis of that tutorial Woods, who sought his own pre-tournament advice on the greens from preferred maestro Steve Stricker, might still be handily placed after opening with a one-over-par 71. Were it not for a double-bogey finish at the ninth hole, Woods might have considered his first day's work satisfactory, if a little over cautious.
Starting at the 10th he reached the turn two under par. After a scratchy opening two holes he was hardly out of position. His birdie from four feet at the par-5 13th was text book. Two holes later he claimed a second and looked to be easing through the gears, a detail fanatically appreciated by the huge galleries following a group that also included Keegan Bradley and Davis Love.
The scenes at the tenth when Woods walked on to the tee at 8.35am reveal how central he remains to this domain. The scandal of four years ago has lost all force. He has, it seems, served his time in the moral slammer, the crowds ready to engage again with the myth of a man who stands apart. Even to glimpse him, for that is all that was possible for most of those stacked ten deep in front of the clubhouse, is to connect with the greatest story of the epoch, an 'I was there' moment.
Alas there was not enough of the Woods vintage. The first sign of anxiety came at the second hole, his 11th, when he missed from three feet for birdie. From that point on the limbs seemed to tighten. He was playing not to gain ground but to hold it. Woods reached for his driver only once, at the fourth, and posted his first bogey. By then the group was on the clock. Warned as they walked up the 18th fairway to get a clip on, the formal boot went in on the first tee. Blame the Love for that. Quick about the greens Davis is not.
“I'm only six back. We have a long way to go,” Woods said. “I feel like I played well, made some key putts. One loose 9-iron on nine after a decent tee shot. Realistically, the round could have been under par easily.” Though it is hard to argue with that, this was a day when fortune rode with the ambitious. Softened by overnight rains Oak Hill was vulnerable to an early riser with a hot putter and a big heart. Enter David Fearn, who shot a 66 to close on four under par and set the early clubhouse pace.
Who is Hearn? I hear you say. He is the bloke who unleashed the big dog off the tee ten times. He was just 12 months old when Nicklaus was rolling back the years. Apart from his defeat in a play-off for the John Deere Classic last month, his claim to fame is sharing a hometown, Brampton, Ontario, with Canada's most celebrated sporting son, Wayne Gretsky. We may not hear from him again, but in being Gretsky for a day Hearn showed that the driver need not be an endangered species in major golf.
Furyk, the patron saint of the unsung golfer, was another who made liberal use of the driver. He began with a birdie at the 10th hole, and until his errant tee shot at the ninth, his last, yielded a closing bogey it was all sunshine. If the problem eating Woods in majors is indeed mental, he might want to follow the example of Furyk and give golf's pre-eminent mind doctor, Bob Rotella, a call.
“I've been doing a lot of work on the putting, speaking to Bob, doing a lot of visualisation and things like that. Today was one of the best, if not the best putting rounds all year, getting the ball on a good line and giving it a chance to go in the hole,” Furyk said. “I'm happy I played a good round. Trust me I'll be in a good mood for the rest of the day but I'm wise enough to realise it's only Thursday. We are jockeying for position.”
On the rails came England's forgotten snowboarder Paul Casey with a 67, underscored by two outrageous blows with the putter from 50ft on the fifth and a mere 32ft on the seventh. Casey is finally rediscovering the form that a decade ago had a few believing they were watching the next big thing. A shoulder injury riding the Colorado powder two winters ago forced shifts in attitude and altitude that might yet see him fulfil that potential.
There was encouragement, too, for the British challenge among the afternoon starters. Lee Westwood, playing in a shirt of canary yellow, began, appropriately enough, with a birdie and by the turn had drawn alongside Casey on three under. After a bogey at the first Justin Rose rattled off four birdies in six holes to reach the turn on the same score.
With three birdies in his opening four holes Rory McIlory looked every bit the player who stormed this tournament a year ago. He held it together to the turn before successive bogeys at ten and 11 left him one under when a storm threat forced the suspension of play at 4.25pm local time.