Clark takes dead aim on easy East Lake

September 14, 2007

ATLANTA (AP) — Given his choice, Tiger Woods likes to see a golf course as difficult as possible.

It didn’t take long to figure out that wouldn’t be the case Thursday at the Tour Championship, the final playoff event for the FedEx Cup that felt more like preseason considering the marshmallow conditions at East Lake Golf Club.

His wedge to the first green left more of a crater than a pitch mark. And after nearly making an ace on the sixth hole for his fourth birdie of the rain-softened round, a scoreboard showed Tim Clark already was 8 under and threatening the course record.

Clark was among only 10 players who finished the first round because of a three-hour storm delay that made the slow greens even softer, closing with three straight pars and still posting an 8-under 62 to tie the course record at East Lake.

“They’re obviously not to the standard that we’re used to on tour,” Clark said of the greens. “Being one of the first groups out there was probably an advantage. We didn’t have the footprints.”

East Lake was incapable of challenging anyone in the finale to the FedEx Cup.

Only five players were over par when the first round was suspended by darkness, none worse than 1 over. Even though he tied the course record, Clark still only had a one-shot advantage over British Open champion Padraig Harrington.

Woods, who can capture the FedEx Cup and its $10 million prize with a victory at the Tour Championship, was at 4 under through 11 holes and could face the smoothness of greens that Clark and Harrington experienced.

“I made a couple putts — I don’t know how,” Woods said while loading his clubs into his car. “I hit them up there and they bounced all over the place and somehow went in.”

Steve Stricker and Phil Mickelson, who are chasing Woods in the FedEx Cup, probably need to find another gear.

Stricker, playing in the final pairing with Woods, was at 1 over through 11 holes.

Mickelson was closer to the lake on the ninth hole than the fairway on the first hole with his opening tee shot, which led to bogey. He nearly hit another tee shot onto the street at the difficult fourth hole, where he took double bogey. But he steadied himself with three straight birdies to close out the front nine, and a birdie on his final hole of the day at No. 12 brought him back to 1 under.

He has to win to have any chance of capturing the FedEx Cup.

The first round will resume at 8 a.m. Friday.

Clark wouldn’t even be at East Lake if not for a 67-67 weekend at the BMW Championship, where he tied for fifth and barely cracked the top 30 to qualify for the Tour Championship. He kept right on rolling, or at least slogging, through rain-softened conditions.

“Having a good Sunday round last week, I had a bit of confidence,” Clark said.

His 62 tied the record set by Bart Bryant in the first round of the 2005 Tour Championship.

Harrington, in the first group off when the greens were at their smoothest, birdied his last four holes for a 63, while John Rollins rode a 3-iron into 20 feet for eagle on the 15th hole for a 64.

Woods managed to get off two shots — a 3-wood to the fairway and a wedge to 8 feet — when the sirens sounded to stop play, rain deluged East Lake and play was stopped until 5:20 p.m.

He returned to make three straight birdies, the final one from 30 feet after barely getting onto the green from the rough.

“That putt was bouncing all over the place,” he said. “It bounced to the right. I thought I missed it. Then it bounced left. I thought I was going to miss it left. And then somehow, it wiggled back to the right up the hill and it went in.”

The greens were almost dead three weeks ago because of record heat and no rain in the Atlanta area. Tour officials, with help from superintendents of neighboring golf clubs, did a noble job getting them ready for the FedEx Cup finale. They sodded some areas of the greens, tried to fill in barren patches with green sand and let the grass grow as much as possible.

“With all they’ve gone through, they’ve done a a great job to get them where they are,” Clark said.

They were running considerably slower than most PGA Tour events, and players were predicting low scores even before the rain.

It didn’t take long for them to be proven right.

Clark was 3 under after four holes, made a 20-foot par save on the par-5 ninth, then allowed a 59 to enter his thinking when he holed a chip for eagle on the 15th that put him at 8 under with three holes remaining.

“Unfortunately, they’re not birdie holes,” Clark said. “I was certainly trying, but I hit a few loose shots coming in. Overall, I knew if I parred the last few holes I was going to be pretty happy with the round.”

Usually, a few shots under par at East Lake is cause for celebration.

Not on this course, or on this day.

“With these conditions, the greens are like a dart board,” Rollins said.

Harrington felt as if he was at home — Ireland in the spring, when the grass is just starting to grow and the greens are still hairy and slow, when a sledge hammer works as well as a putter.

“You’ve got soft greens, the greens are at a pace that you can really be aggressive on them and run the ball at the hole,” he said. “So yeah, I would think it’s a good week for scoring.”

The tour considers this its “Super Bowl” to conclude these playoffs.

A defensive struggle, it’s not.