Karlsson and the 'Other Singh' lead early starters; Mickelson is two back
BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Several big names lurked near the lead after round one of the 90th PGA Championship at Oakland Hills on Thursday.
But no one could catch early starters Robert Karlsson, an introspective Swede, and Jeev Milkha Singh, a short-game ace whose full swing is so unorthodox countryman Daniel Chopra has called him, "an Indian Jim Furyk."
"I made a lot of up-and-downs and I think that my putting helped me quite a bit today," Singh said after taking 29 putts. "My short game was sharp. Didn't drive the ball that good, but any time you shoot under par in a major championship I think you've got to take it and put it deep down in your pocket."
As with Tiger Woods at the U.S. Open and Padraig Harrington at the British, Singh's solid play is reinforcing an old chestnut: Beware the injured golfer.
He injured his right ankle at the French Open almost two months ago, and has severely limited his practice rounds, in some cases forgoing them altogether. So naturally he's won twice in the last seven weeks, once at the Euro Tour's Austrian Open (18 pars on Sunday) and again in Japan two weeks ago.
Players champion Sergio Garcia was a shot off the pace after an opening 69, along with Billy Mayfair, Sean O'Hair and Ken Duke. Anthony Kim, a two-time Tour winner in 2008, played with Garcia and Camilo Villegas (74) in the day's glamour threesome and shot even-par 70.
So did Phil Mickelson, the 2005 PGA champ, who bogeyed four holes on his first nine but rallied on his second nine, the front.
"I'm just happy to shoot even par today," Mickelson said. "I think that after the start, bogeying the first two holes, I thought it was pretty good to hang in there, fight and make some birdies, because there were a lot of holes that were tough to get to."
Angel Cabrera also was among the eight players at even-par 70.
Kenny Perry, who has three victories this year and would have been a candidate for Player of the Year with a victory this week, withdrew with a scratched cornea after signing for a first-round 79.
Several players noted that the greens were much firmer and faster than they were in the practice rounds, and in fact the PGA of America syringed holes 1, 9 and 18 in the afternoon due to what PGA managing director of championships Kerry Haigh called "dryness of and strain on the grass."
Shortly after that, however, a dark cloud blew in over the course, dumping rain and forcing a suspension of play at 5:33 p.m. By the time players resumed at 6:58, all the greens had been watered, and it was clear not everyone would finish the first round before nightfall.
Andres Romero, the Argentine who made a late run at the 2007 British Open, was one of 78 players on the course when play resumed. He birdied the par-5 12th hole to tie for the lead at 2-under with two holes remaining before play was called because of darkness at 8:39 p.m.
A total of 18 players failed to finish and were scheduled to resume the first round at 8 a.m. Friday. The second round will begin as expected at 7:30 a.m.
Ernie Els and Padraig Harrington were among the afternoon starters to finish; each shot 1-over 71, three back of the leaders.
"I felt like I played a lot better than 71," said Harrington, who birdied his first three holes. "I really struggled on the greens."
A large billboard near the new Detroit airport asks the question, "Who's Your Tiger?" It's meant to be a baseball question, but this week it's more relevant to golf. Mickelson was a natural pick to ease into the throne temporarily vacated by the injured Woods, but not Singh, the first Indian golfer to qualify for the European Tour and the first to play the Masters.
Known as one of the nicer guys in the game, Singh takes a bit of good-natured ribbing from players and caddies for refusing to pick one professional tour and stick to it. This is one reason why he remains so anonymous at age 36, despite nine professional victories — five in Europe and two apiece on the Asian and Japanese tours. His best year was 2006, when he compiled 39 starts in 17 countries on four continents, racking up 20 top-10 finishes, including four wins.
"I was so zonked out and confused — not a nice feeling — but I was playing so well, I felt I couldn't take a week off," he told Sports Illustrated's Alan Shipnuck last year.
Like Harrington at Royal Birkdale, Singh kept his practice rounds to a minimum this week: nine holes Tuesday and nine holes Wednesday. He wears a brace, and after getting an MRI three weeks ago, Singh was advised to take four weeks off to ease inflammation and fluid build-up.
But like this year's other newsmakers, he couldn't bring himself to go home (Chandigarh, India) in the middle of such an important stretch of golf.
It paid off Thursday.
Singh bogeyed the relatively easy 435-yard, par-4 opening hole, but he hit a driver and a 4-iron to five feet on the par-5 second. He made the eagle putt to spark his round, which included three birdies and two more bogeys.
Karlsson's scarring, however, has been mostly psychological.
"I'm a quitter," he told told Sports Illustrated's John Garrity in 2002. That was when Karlsson was searching for meaning in his life and wondering why he could play fine on the range but not when it counted. He did a weeklong workshop in the woods, fasted and attended silent retreats. His diet included the same volcanic sand made famous by countryman Jesper Parnevik, plus a sort of porridge made of wheat shoots.
Working with the Swedish coach Annchristine Lundstrom has been a big part of Karlsson's transformation. She asks him questions like, "What if you were your own coach? How would you think? How would you support yourself?"
"Now on the first tee I'm sort of my own boss a lot more than I've ever been," Karlsson said. He double-bogeyed the first hole Thursday but showed his mental toughness by making five front-nine birdies to turn in three-under 32. He dropped a shot on the back nine to finish two under.
"I tried to force results, trying to make it happen instead of just going out and playing," he said of the fallow periods that sent him searching in the woods both on and off the course. "I sort of tried too hard to play. I didn't play my golf. I tried to almost play somebody else's golf, and I couldn't see how my golf was good enough to get around these kind of golf courses."
Karlsson, 38, the only player with top-10 finishes in all three majors this year, has recorded nine top 10s this season, climbing to 22nd in the World Ranking and fourth on the Euro Tour's Order of Merit. He shot a 61 at the Italian Open and held his own in a third-round pairing with Tiger at Torrey Pines in June. (After a wobbly 41 on the front nine, he closed in 34.)
These days, most everyone can see how Karlsson's golf is good enough.