There was plenty of drama on a curtailed first day of the US Players Championship, just not much of it on the leaderboard that, for once, was lacking Tiger Woods. A huge thunderstorm before dawn was perhaps the most dramatic event, though Colin Montgomerie ran it close in the thunder department when play was halted late in the afternoon with the Scot about to putt at his last hole.
At one over par, Montgomerie had a birdie putt at the ninth when play was suspended as another storm came in. Monty stomped off, cursing the heavens and will have to return to putt out this morning before venturing out on his second round.
Few of the afternoon starters completed their rounds, but one who did, in far lighter mood than Montgomerie, was Michael Campbell. The Kiwi injured his shoulder hauling around his luggage at the airport over a week ago, and it was still bothering him yesterday.
Campbell parred the 17th and then hit an eight-iron to six feet for a birdie at the last, the high points of an 89. That would have been the worst score the course had seen, but his playing partner, JL Lewis, had not kept up with Campbell's mounting score and had him down for an 87. Campbell, who was involved in the Padraig Harrington incorrectly-signed scorecard at The Belfry a couple of years ago, signed anyway and was disqualified.
"I can't swing properly," he said. "I can't release through the ball. It is like an alien has taken over my body. It is probably the worst professional round of my life but it is only one round. You've got to laugh about it otherwise you would slit your throat."
Campbell said he would have retired during the round had he been in a threeball, but he did not want to leave Lewis playing solo.
Earlier, Woods had to settle for a level-par 72, but it could have been worse. "I could have had a 77 today, maybe a 78 or a 79," Woods said. "We all know golf can be a fickle game."
In his last competitive round, Woods wiped the field at Bay Hill despite suffering from food poisoning. He felt perfectly well yesterday, although he said it would take some time to replace the six pounds he lost, but was not comfortable with his swing.
"I wasn't hitting the ball as well as I have recently," Woods added. "I made a lot of good saves and putts. Getting back to even par in those conditions was good. I kept myself in the ballgame and I'm only four shots out of the lead."
There was a four-way tie for the lead on 68, between Rocco Mediate, Skip Kendall, Bob Tway and Jay Haas, all of whom played in the morning. Darren Clarke, who scored a 71, gave himself a number of birdie opportunities but the longest putts he holed all day were an eight-footer on the fifth and a 15-footer on the ninth, his last, both for pars.
"I was very patient, which I possibly might not have been in the past," said the Irishman who is working with the sports psychologist Bob Rotella. "I stuck at it and the fact that I had so many chances shows I was striking the ball really well. The putt for par at the last was important because I would have been disappointed to walk off with level par."
Joining Clarke on one under were Paul Lawrie and Sergio Garcia. The young Spaniard has finally decided to address the prominent lag at the top of his backswing and has been working with his father, Victor, on a more orthodox movement for the last three weeks. "There is still a lot of work to do but my good shots feel really good," Garcia said.
US PLAYERS CHAMPIONSHIP (Sawgrass) Early leading first-round scores (US unless stated): 68 S Kendall, J Haas, B Tway, R Mediate. 69 S Cink. 70 R Allenby (Aus), J Daly, M Gogel. 71 S Flesch, R Gamez, G Hnatiuk (Can), S Micheel, B Andrade, J Sindelar, S Garcia (Sp), D Clarke (GB/NIrl), P Lawrie (GB), S Appleby (Aus), S Verplank, T Herron, J Maggert. 72 K Triplett, G Day, T Woods, J Byrd, M Weir (Can), C Campbell. Selected: 73 N Price (Zim), R Goosen (SA), C Parry (Aus), P Lonard (Aus). 74 T Levet (Fr). 75 S Elkington (Aus). 76 J Parnevik (Swe), F Allem (SA). 77 R Pampling (Aus). 78 G Norman (Aus). 79 T Immelman (SA).
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