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Sim leads Australian PGA after first round

COOLUM, Australia (AP) — Michael Sim's 7-under-par 65 Thursday and a one-stroke lead at the Australian PGA rates as one of the year's highlights for the young Australian golfer.

Not that there's been a lot of competition in that department.

Sim was pretty much on top of the world just over a year ago, having won a Nationwide event, finishing in the top 25 on that tour and qualifying for the main PGA Tour in 2007.

Any plans the 23-year-old Scottish-born Sim had about packing his bags for the United States ended shortly before last November's Australian Open.

A scan there revealed that an uncomfortable feeling he had in his back while hitting an extra-strong drive - "I tried to carry this water at about 270 (yards)" - during a tournament in Wichita a few months earlier was actually a stress fracture in his spine.

He made it over the water that day, but he knew something was seriously wrong. There were days he could hardly walk, and in the Nationwide's Tour Championship, he hit a number of drives that measured less than 150 yards.

With the diagnosis in, he was told by doctors to have a complete rest from the rigors of practicing and playing - four months without picking up a club at his home in Melbourne.

"It was difficult ... I was watching good friends of mine (from the Nationwide Tour) playing on TV, and I'm just sitting there on the couch doing my rehab," Sim said Thursday. "I felt like I was a little bit behind the eight-ball. All the rookies had sort of like a 3- or 4-month head start."

He didn't begin his 2007 season until April, playing 17 tournaments overall and not doing too badly, earning just under $400,000 (274,000).

Sim has a PGA Tour medical extension for next year, which gives him five tournaments to earn $385,000. The Australian must match the money earned this year by Mathias Gronberg, who took home $785,000 and was 125th on the money list, the last position allowing a player to keep his card for 2008.

"When my time comes up, I've got to play well," Sim says.

Based on his performance Thursday, he should be optimistic about the daunting prospect of earning an average of US$77,000 in each of those five 2008 tournaments.

Teeing off in the first group off the first tee at 6:15 a.m. Thursday, Sim went out in 4-under 32 after making birdies on three of the last four holes and a 15-foot putt for par on nine.

"It was a terrific round," said Sim, whose missed the cut in 2005 when he last played the Hyatt Regency resort course.

American big-hitter J.B. Holmes and Australians Craig Parry, Richard Green and Peter Lonard shot 66s and are tied for second, a stroke behind.

Adam Scott and David Smail opened with 67s, South African Rory Sabbatini was in a large group at 68, and defending champion Nick O'Hern shot 70.

Most of the leading players - Lonard and Sabbatini were the exceptions - had morning starts, when light cloud cover and a lack of wind led to perfect scoring conditions.

Holmes was married last week. His wife, Sara, followed him around the course Thursday. The American only pulled out his driver three times, including on the par-5 15th, which he eagled.

"A cut driver down the bottom of the hill, 8-iron to about 15 feet, and ran it right over the edge for eagle," Holmes said.

Another American, Ryan Moore, was in contention before taking a 9 on the par-five 12th, going from 5 under on the day to 1 under.

Moore's tee shot went into heavy rough, forcing him to take a penalty stroke for an unplayable lie. But he hacked out twice more from the same area, missed the green with his sixth shot and two-putted for a quadruple bogey.

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