THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) – K.J. Choi opened with five straight birdies. Tiger Woods looked as good as he did in Australia, making his fourth birdie with a 3-iron to an elevated green on the par-5 fifth that covered the flag.
And then, without warning, the wind showed up Thursday in the foothills of Sherwood Country Club.
Choi held his own in gusts up to 30 mph and finished with a 6-under 66, giving him a three-shot lead over Woods and Steve Stricker in the Chevron World Challenge.
They were the only three players to break 70 in the 18-man field in the final official event in America this year.
“Anything under par is a good day today with the wind up,'' said Woods, a four-time winner of this event and the tournament host. “If the wind stayed down, you're going to have to shoot probably 68 or below for it to be a good score.''
Five of the six players who broke par – Jim Furyk, Nick Watney and Rickie Fowler were at 71 – had most recently played at blustery Royal Melbourne in the Presidents Cup.
Choi figures he had even a greater advantage. He lives in Dallas.
“I was used to playing in the windy conditions, not only playing in Melbourne, but also living in Dallas, where there's 20- to 30-mile wind every other day,'' Choi said. “I'm used to practicing in those conditions. I've become very comfortable in those windy conditions.''
The notorious Santa Ana wind was in the forecast, with some projections of 60 mph gusts.
But when the elite field arrived at Sherwood, there was not even a breeze. Woods and Stricker birdied the opening two holes with relative ease. Woods added another birdie on No. 4 with a 25-foot putt, and then came his 3-iron from 229 yards to 18 feet for an eagle attempt that burned the edge.
He was standing on the sixth green, 15 feet behind the hole, when a big gust backed Woods off his putt and scattered leaves raced across the fairway behind him.
On the next hole, Stricker was staring over an iron shot that was drawing right at the flag. A strong gust swatted the ball out of the sky and dropped it 20 feet short of the green into the deep rough.
Watney was motoring along at 2 under when he had a birdie putt on the 14th. He addressed the ball, backed off and watched it move, costing him a one-shot penalty. A new rule that would eliminate the penalty stroke if deemed that the wind moved the ball after address is not effective until Jan. 1.
Watney took a positive out of that bogey.
“I might be the last player in history to be penalized under that rule,'' he said. “That could be a trivia question one day.''
Best that he not hold his breath on that one.
Jason Day was among the leaders until the wind gobbled up his approach on the par-5 16th, leading to double bogey. Then he hit into the trees on the par-3 17th and injured his right thumb trying to play out of the mess. He made another double bogey, and then finished with a bogey for a 74.
Matt Kuchar, coming off a World Cup win with Gary Woodland in China, was 4 under until he made triple bogey on the 16th, bogeyed the 17th and had to settle for a 72.
Woods also made a bogey on the 16th after popping up a tee shot and running into trouble with his attempt to lay up. Earlier on the ninth hole, he had a nasty lie on the side of a hill with a large branch in his way, and he moved the ball only about 10 yards. But those were the rare mistakes.
He looked very steady for nine rounds in the wind in Australia. In more gusts at Sherwood, he didn't look much differently. He was in control of his irons and even when he did miss off the tee, it wasn't by much.
“It looks like he's getting a lot of confidence back again,'' Stricker said. “It looks like the Tiger of old, really, and it's great to see. We need him out there playing, and playing well.''
Stricker hit a superb shot on the 10th with the wind at his back. After hitting driver that left him an awkward yardage – about 50 yards to a front pin – he nipped a wedge that just carried onto the green and checked up 3 feet away. He birdied the 18th to join Woods in second place, although Woods will be in the final group Friday with Choi.
Choi, even though he was three groups behind Woods, saw enough of him in the opening round. The fourth and fifth holes go in opposite direction of the second and third holes, and what Choi saw caught his attention, particularly the 3-iron that Woods hit on No. 5.
“I think he is really 80, 90 percent back to his form again,'' Choi said. I'm very happy about playing with him tomorrow. Tiger is a good friend. He's got a very strong will. He's got the right mental attitude right now, and I think it's going to be a very fun day tomorrow.
“I watched him play a couple of holes today, and I was very impressed at the way he was swinging, at his rhythm, at the power he had,'' Choi said. “It almost seemed like watching the old Tiger back in the day.''