SHEBOYGAN, Wis. (AP) — With a quick return to the top of the leaderboard, Tiger Woods seemed to be restoring some order to the golf world.
By the end of the afternoon, Woods was sliding down that board and the PGA Championship was a free-for-all – like everything else in golf these days.
Bubba Watson and Francesco Molinari took the early lead at the PGA on Thursday, shooting 4-under 68s after the tournament finally got under way following a three-hour fog delay. Jason Day and Ryan Moore are a stroke back. Woods, who had birdies on three of his first four holes, is at 1 under after closing with a birdie on the final hole.
Phil Mickelson, who could take the world No. 1 ranking from Woods this week, teed off late Thursday afternoon and birdied his first hole. The four-time major winner is unlikely to finish his round Thursday after tee times were pushed back 3 hours and 10 minutes because of fog that shrouded Whistling Straits.
“I played too good not to shoot under par, and it would have been very disappointing and frustrating to end up at even par as well as I played today,” Woods said. “To shoot under par just feels like less than I should have shot for the way I played today, and that’s a good feeling.”
Seeing Woods atop the leaderboard so early at a tournament, even a major, wouldn’t ordinarily count as big news.
But there is nothing ordinary about Woods these days.
His personal life has started to “normalize” after months of tawdry details about his rampant infidelities. But he arrived at Whistling Straits fresh off the worst performance of his career, shooting a whopping 18-over 298 and beating only one player in the 80-man field at Firestone – a course where he’s won seven times.
He’s broken par in only four of his last 20 rounds, and is in danger of losing the No. 1 ranking he’s held for a record 270 weeks in a row.
When the fog cleared, however, there was a glimpse of the old Woods. Starting on the back nine, he birdied three of his first four holes and found himself in a share of the lead. But he missed three birdie chances before he made the turn and started spraying shots around the course on his back nine.
“It felt good to be a little bit more steady today,” Woods said.
But he’s still chasing players he used to beat routinely on his way to 14 major titles, four shy of Jack Nicklaus’ record.
The PGA has a history of producing some unexpected winners – this, after all, is where John Daly went from alternate to major champion – but everything seems to be wide open these days. Five of the last six major were won by first-timers, including the U.S. Open (Graeme McDowell) and British Open (Louis Oosthuizen).
And, of course, last year’s PGA, where Y.E. Yang became the first player to beat Woods when he held the 54-hole lead at a major.
“You just look at the leaderboard, there’s a lot of different flavor up there,” Day said.
Watson, who picked up his first PGA Tour win earlier this year at the Travelers Championship, is one of the tour’s longest hitters. But it was his scrambling ability that paid off on the long, links-style course.
“It just keeps the momentum,” Watson said. “If I don’t get up-and-down and up-and-down a couple of times today, my momentum could shift. It might not, but it could shift and not go the right direction and I could be made the rest of the day. So I just held it together. I made some key putts that I needed to make, and now I’m here.”
Molinari was stuck around 2 under for most of the afternoon, leaving him tied with brother Edoardo in the battle for high Molinari. But a bogey on No. 4 – his 13th hole – gave him a spark, and he made three birdies over his final five holes.
Molinari said McDowell and Oosthuizen’s wins have been an inspiration for the European tour players. It’s a lot easier to imagine himself winning a major championship when he’s seen a couple of his buddies do it.
“But still, it’s really, really hard to win a tournament like this,” he said. “I think obviously Tiger is going to get back to his standards and Phil is going to win more majors. So you just need to play really well and try to grab the occasion when you have it.”