ATLANTA — The first round of the Tour Championship was dominated by a player looking to make a statement after missing portions of the season with an injury, but that player was not Phil Mickelson.
Tim Clark, a diminutive South African who has struggled with neck pain on and off for the last 14 months, made six birdies and an eagle for a first-round 62 that tied the course record at soggy, vulnerable East Lake Golf Club.
"I missed probably five tournaments, four or five, that I would have played," Clark said of his neck injury. "You know, it's been doing okay, and obviously it's been a big stretch this last month and a half. Obviously after this week we'll take some time off."
Padraig Harrington fired a back-nine 29 to come in at 63, one behind Clark. John Rollins was another shot back after a 64, as was Tiger Woods, who was one of 20 players to finish the first round Friday morning. Woods, the leader in the inaugural FedEx Cup points standings, had the best start of those with a serious shot to win the Cup and $10 million in deferred compensation. Steve Stricker, second in the points standings, shot one-under 69, and Mickelson, in third, shot two-under 68.
The substandard greens were the story heading into the tournament, but the weather changed that. A surprise thunderstorm on Thursday led to a three-hour rain delay, and play was halted because of darkness at 7:09 p.m.
The second round is being played this morning (click here for updates) in hopes of completing play before another approaching storm, this one a remnant of Hurricane Humberto, reaches Atlanta.
The group at five-under 65 included Mark Calcavecchia, playing partner Woody Austin, Hunter Mahan and defending champion Adam Scott.
"I made a couple of putts," Woods said. "I don't know how. I hit them up there and they bounced all over the place and somehow went in."
Clark may have benefited from being in the second pairing on Thursday, when the greens were relatively unscathed by spike marks. "I certainly was expecting a lot worse," he said. Woods was off last.
After making a par at the first hole, Clark birdied three straight to take a lead he'd hold all day. He birdied the par-4 12th and 14th holes after the rain delay and added an eagle 3 at the 495-yard, par-5 15th.
He has had pain in his neck since the 2006 British Open, and he believes it may have been caused by a swing flaw. Among the remedies he's tried is tilting his head slightly to the right at address, like Jack Nicklaus. In addition to alleviating the pain, he said, "It's helped my golf swing."
Much of the focus Thursday was on Woods, Stricker and Mickelson, but only one of them looked ready to play.
Woods birdied his first three holes while Mickelson, playing one group in front of him, was missing left and right. At the top of his game just 11 days ago, he found trouble fast. He pushed his tee shot left on the first hole, hit a tree with his second shot and made bogey. And while he hit solid approaches on Nos. 2, 3 and 4, he couldn't make a putt.
With Woods audibly thriving behind him, Mickelson hit his worst shot of the day on the 520-yard, par-4 fifth hole, the hardest at East Lake. He pulled his drive into a bush right of the fairway, had to take an unplayable lie, chipped out, missed the green with his long-iron fourth shot, and got up-and-down for a double-bogey 6. He was three over through five holes.
After less than an hour of play, six strokes separated Mickelson and Woods. The lefthander righted himself with three straight birdies from the seventh through ninth holes to get back to even par for the front nine, then birdied the 391-yard, par-4 12th hole to reach one under before play was halted.
He made one more birdie, on the easy, par-5 15th hole, on Friday morning to salvage a two-under 68. Still, he did not look sharp. He missed right on 16, left on 17 and long on 18, but he scrambled for pars on all three.
Stricker, second in the FedEx standings and playing alongside Woods, was one over through 11 holes. He came back Saturday morning to post a pair of birdies and shoot one-under 69.
Clark, 31, has never won on the PGA Tour but is known for his streaky play. He was the 36-hole leader at this year's Masters, and the runner-up at Augusta in 2006. After winning his second SA Open in 2005 (he's won three times in Europe) Clark flew 30 hours to Palm Springs, Calif., where he had never seen any of the four host courses at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. He finished second.
Several players went low at East Lake on Thursday. Harrington, who made the field on the number despite skipping the BMW last week, birdied his last four holes. Calcavecchia birdied the sixth through eighth. Four men eagled the 495-yard, par-5 15th.
"I just wanted to be in the tournament," said Clark, who fired two 67s in Chicago last weekend to move from 33rd to 27th in the FedEx Cup standings and qualify for East Lake. "Having a good Sunday round last week, I had a bit of confidence. You know, I didn't play a practice round this week. I've just sort of shown up and come to play, and I guess it worked out."