HAVEN, Wis. (AP) -- Darren Clarke put the rumors to rest quickly.
After three days of hysteria that Whistling Straits might be the toughest test ever at a major, Clarke birdied the first four holes Thursday in the PGA Championship and didn't stop until he had a 7-under 65, setting the tone for an opening round of mild wind, shorter tees and scores that more closely resembled the Booz Allen Classic.
Clarke, feeling right at home on a links-styled course that reminds so many players of Ireland and Scotland, made nine birdies for a one-shot lead over Ernie Els and Justin Leonard. It was the lowest score under par in the first round of a major since Chris DiMarco had a 7-under 65 at the 2001 Masters.
So much for Whistling Straits leaving everyone in dire straits.
"We got fortunate with the conditions," Clarke said. "The greens were holding. We were able to fire at flags that we were not able to do earlier in the week."
Those weren't the only favorable conditions.
The whipping wind during the practice rounds was more of a gentle breeze, and it shifted directions about an hour into the first round. That eliminated the crosswind that tends to blow any shot slightly off line into some of the 1,400 bunkers and over the bluffs along Lake Michigan.
If that wasn't enough, the PGA of America -- perhaps itself fearful of the unknown on a 6-year-old course never tested in competition -- decided to move up the tees on three holes. That knocked 145 yards off the longest course in major history, so it played only 7,369 yards. Plus, all the par 3s had pins at the front of the greens.
"I think they were pretty nice to us with the tee markers," Jay Haas said after a 4-under 68, enhancing his bid to become the oldest man to qualify for the U.S. Ryder Cup team at age 50.
But it wasn't much of a help to Tiger Woods.
Winless in his last nine majors, Woods now has another streak to worry about. With a double-bogey on his second hole and 32 putts in his round, Woods failed to break par in the first round of a major for the 10th straight time, shooting a 3-over 75 that left him in serious jeopardy of missing the cut for the first time in 128 tournaments and the first time ever as a professional in a major.
"I didn't hit the ball all that poorly, but I sure putted bad," Woods said.
Vijay Singh, playing with Woods and John Daly, got himself into position to end an 0-for-18 drought in the majors with a 5-under 67, putting him in a large group that included Ryder Cup hopefuls Scott Verplank and Luke Donald, along with Briny Baird.
Masters champion Phil Mickelson opened with three straight birdies in the afternoon and shot 69, a good start in his bid to become the first player to finish in the top 3 in all four majors in the same year.
"Without wind, all that trouble -- all those bunkers you see -- aren't really in play for us," Mickelson said. "The course played very susceptible to low scores, to birdies."
Open Championship winner Todd Hamilton shot 72.
Singh, who slipped out a side door to avoid speaking to reporters after his 67, later told a PGA Tour official that he thought the tournament went soft.
"I think they kind of went a little too easy," Singh said. "I enjoyed playing it, and I think it's going to get tougher from here in."
The PGA champion has been under par 41 times in the 46 years since the tournament switched to stroke play, and most everyone figured Whistling Straits would be one of those exceptions. The wind can be wicked off Lake Michigan, the greens are enormous with severe slopes and it's not easy to get the ball close to the hole.
But it didn't take long to realize this wasn't the monster course that had been predicted.
Clarke, the 35-year-old from Northern Ireland, hit a lob wedge into 12 feet for birdie on the opening hole and was off to the races. He just missed the par-5 second hole in two shots for an easy birdie, hit 8-iron into 18 feet for birdie on the third and followed that with a driver and a 9-iron on the 493-yard fourth hole to 12 feet for another birdie.
"The greens were soft, and some of the pin positions were ... I would not say generous, but reasonable," he said. "There were birdie opportunities out there. Fortunately, I made the most of them."
He didn't have much choice. The biggest threat came from his own group -- Leonard and K.J. Choi, who birdied his first five holes and wound up with a 68. They combined to shoot 17-under-par.
Els, seeking redemption at the PGA Championship from a season of major heartache, also warmed up quickly by hitting 8-iron to 2 feet on the par-3 12th and making birdie on two other par 3s -- a 15-footer on the menacing 17th, a 5-footer on No. 3.
"If we have decent conditions, we can score," Els said.
An example of how the conditions changed came on the par-4 18th, listed as one three 500-yard par 4s. The tee box was moved up 51 yards to play at only 449 yards, and the wind was at the players' backs. During a practice round, Els smashed a drive and still had to hit a 3-wood to reach the green. On Thursday, he hit a 3-wood through the fairway, and an 8-iron to the green.
"It's a very tough layout," Els said. "I just felt that we had a break today in the weather."
Nothing seems to help Woods, who once dominated the majors but now saves them for his worst putting. He started with a birdie, but fell apart by hitting into the left rough twice, the right rough once and three-putting from the fringe for a double bogey. He followed that with two more bogeys and was 3-over just four holes into the final major.
The only bright spot?
He hit driver on the 373-yard 14th hole, and a huge cheer that started from around the green and filtered all the way to the tee told him he was on the green, some 30 feet away for a two-putt birdie.
Still, the focus Friday will be on whether he makes the cut, not whether he contends.
And the curiosity continues. Whistling Straits is still a beast, and all it takes is a little wind, firmer greens, some tougher pins and tee boxes returned to their regular positions, and everything could change.
"About the time this is over, I don't think the scores are going to be all that low," Verplank said. "But they're not going to have to do something idiotic like the USGA did" at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills.
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.
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