HAVEN, Wis.- Earlier this week, Darren Clarke walked off Whistling Straits after a practice round and, only half-jokingly, suggested he had never seen a course with so many par 6s.
Yesterday, the Straits barely had any par 5s.
Clarke opened the PGA Championship with four consecutive birdies and finished with a 7-under 65 that produced a one-shot lead.
By day's end, eight holes had played either at or under par, based on stroke average, an astonishing number for any major championship course and certainly for one that was billed in advance by most all players as being among the toughest they had ever seen.Thirty-nine players bettered par of 72 as the PGA of America may have erred on the side of caution after hearing concerns from players early in the week that the spectacular course on the Lake Michigan shoreline might actually be too tough.
"I think that they did well; it was a fair setup," said Ernie Els, runner-up at both the Masters and British Open who shot a 66 and is tied for second with Justin Leonard. "They can stretch it out and make it very tough, but for the first or second round, to get the field moving, I think they did the right thing. There's a lot of teeth still left in this golf course. "
Some players have the bite marks to prove it. John Daly and Rory Sabbatini tied for the day's high round with 81s. Davis Love III had a 79 and defending champion Shaun Micheel a 77. Tiger Woods, struggling all day with his putter, sputtered to a 75.
But the teeth were definitely removed from three of the toughest holes. The par-4 8th hole was shortened from 507 yards to 468; the 618-yard, par-5 11th hole played instead at 563 yards, and the 18th, almost unreachable into the wind at 500 yards, played downwind at 449 yards. A favoring breeze also made two other par 5s - the second and 16th holes, a combined 1,162 yards between them - reachable for most of the field.
Among those who took advantage were the foursome of Vijay Singh, Scott Verplank, Luke Donald, and Briny Baird at 5-under 67. Phil Mickelson birdied his first three holes, but played even from there for a 3-under 69.
Winds gusted to more than 20 mph during early morning hours and the course was set up accordingly. Then the wind nearly stopped before actually changing direction.
"We played a tee box on No. 8 that I didn't even know was there, " Woods said. "We didn't play the same course today that we did in practice rounds."
The 18th hole was the biggest change as players used a tee 51 yards forward of the tips.
"On Tuesday, I hit driver-3 wood there," Woods said. "Today, it was a 2-iron and a wedge. And [John] Daly and I walked off the tee and figured we'd over-clubbed and probably should have hit 3-iron or 4-iron. Moving the tee up on a downwind hole doesn't make sense."
Jay Haas, who fired a 68, was among the earliest starters yesterday and said, "The wind was whipping pretty good. Then it died a little and when it came back up it was more into you or downwind, as opposed to across, and that made the course, especially the holes along the lake, play a little easier. And that made it easier to judge shots."
Few groups judged shots better than Clarke, Leonard, and K.J. Choi, who shot a 68.
"K.J. birdied the first five holes, I birdied the first four, and Justin got on a serious role [five birdies in a seven-hole stretch] on the back nine," Clarke said. "There were good shots and we were hitting flags all over the place. When your playing partners are playing that well, it's easy to keep concentrating on your own game."
If a shorter course and more benign conditions wasn't enough to lighten the load, Leonard suggested that "the greens were a little soft, very receptive and in such great shape. That's the way they should play because there's so much undulation. You felt like you had a chance to hole some putts."
He made seven for birdies and needed just 26 putts on the day.
Leader Clarke's fellow Irishman, Padraig Harrington, moved into contention by scoring birdies at his last three holes - Nos. 7-8-9 - to wrap up a round of 68.
Harrington called Whistling Straits "a very pleasant test," but sounded a cautionary note for the next few days.
"Whoever is setting up the golf course can set up whatever score they want to see," he said.
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