ROCHESTER, N.Y. (AP) -- Maybe the time is right for Lefty.
In a season of players winning their first major, Phil Mickelson took a step toward claiming his Thursday at the PGA Championship with a 4-under 66 that gave him a share of the lead with Rod Pampling of Australia.
While tough Oak Hill gobbled up Tiger Woods and a host of others, Mickelson looked like a player intent on finally shedding his label as the best to have never won a major.
He was aggressive off the tee and recovered on the rare occasion his shots soared into the trees. Only a 10-foot par putt that hung on the edge of his final hole kept Mickelson from matching his best score in a major.
Along the way, he was carried along by cheers: "This is your week, Phil!"
"It was a nice start," Mickelson said. "But it's nothing more than that."
Woods gladly would have swapped places.
Trying to avoid a Grand Slam shutout for the first time since 1998, Woods struggled off the tee no matter what club was in his hands. He hit only five fairways -- a recipe for trouble at Oak Hill -- and he resembled Mickelson at the end by missing a 2-foot par putt.
He finished at 4-over 74, the sixth consecutive time in a major he has failed to break par in the opening round. That's not a good omen for Woods, because he has never won any tournament when he shoots over par in the first round.
Woods was so angry that he refused to speak to reporters.
"I just didn't drive very well and put myself under a lot of pressure because of it," Woods told a PGA Tour media official. "It didn't matter what club I hit off the tee, I couldn't keep it in play."
Woods wasn't alone in his struggles.
Rich Beem made three double bogeys, no birdies and shot 82, the highest first-round score by a defending champion since the PGA Championship switched to stroke play in 1958.
Colin Montgomerie -- the other "best player to have never won a major" -- can forget about this one. He also shot 82, as did Brad Faxon. David Duval had an 80, the third time this year he has failed to break 80 in a major.
Anything under par was something to be treasured at Oak Hill.
Billy Andrade, an alternate when the week started, birdied the 18th hole for a 3-under 67 to finish one stroke out of the lead.
Masters champion Mike Weir chipped in for birdie and closed with two strong pars for a 68, tied with two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen.
Kevin Sutherland, Fred Funk and Aaron Baddeley were among those at 69.
"There are four weeks a year you can shoot even par and walk away happy, and those are the four majors," said Charles Howell III, who had an even-par 70 and looked happy enough.
No one was more pleased than Mickelson, a 20-time winner on the PGA Tour, 0-for-41 in the majors since turning pro in 1992.
Part of the problem is not giving himself enough chances. Mickelson has played 157 rounds in the majors as a pro, and this was only the fifth time he has been in the lead.
"Maybe he can get the monkey off his back this week," said David Toms, who beat Mickelson in the 2001 PGA Championship. "He's been playing good golf for a long time and he needs to win a major to erase the doubts."
Mickelson hasn't contended since he finished third in the Masters, although he showed signs of turning it around last week at the International. Plus, he has been working on his swing, trying to make it longer and more fluid.
"I could see things turning around and I'm starting to feel confident in certain areas of my game, especially off the tee," Mickelson said.
He looked like Lefty on the course, but was strangely distant after he signed his card. Mickelson declined to go come into the press center for an interview -- unheard of for a leader at a major championship.
One reason: He was hungry.
"I think it's more important that I maintain my physical strength, mental strength and have a break than it is to accommodate everyone here," he said.
Indeed, it was a different Mickelson who contended all week at Atlanta Athletic Club two years ago. He talked then about not wanting to win one major, but several; by not wanting to lead the PGA, but to lead it by several shots.
He was only cautiously optimistic this time, happy about his round, unwilling to speculate where it might lead.
"Everyone wants to get off to a good start," he said. "It's tough to play catch-up at major championships because the courses seem to progressively get more difficult as the week goes on."
Pampling didn't want to get ahead of himself, either.
The 33-year-old Aussie, who started in golf as a greenskeeper, missed only two fairways on his way to a bogey-free 66.
The last time Pampling was in the lead at a major came at the 1999 British Open. He shot 86 the next day at Carnoustie and missed the cut.
"You learn that nothing counts after Day 1," he said. "There's still three days to go."
No one is sure what will happen, especially with Mickelson.
His 66 was an excellent round, but it was not without a few hairy moments.
From the deep rough on No. 12, he hammered a 7-iron out of the thick grass, clipped a branch and stopped the ball 4 feet from the cup. On the 598-yard 13th, Mickelson hit a 3-wood onto the hilly rough right of the fairway and still made birdie.
Kenny Perry, the hottest player in golf with three victories since May, was just as impressed as the gallery following their group.
"He's just as good as Tiger," Perry said after his 75. "That guy has got some unbelievable shots around the green. Even though I played lousy, I got to experience something that not a lot of people get to experience."
Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.
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