BETHESDA, Md. (AP) — It’s just like old times for the PGA Tour’s annual stop in the nation’s capital. There’s no Tiger Woods to be found, and there’s a potential first-time winner atop the leaderboard.
In fact, other than the venue – the historic and well-heeled Congressional Country Club – the first round of the AT&T National on Thursday was one big flashback to the days of the Kemper Open. Local kid Steve Marino led a field lacking many top names in front of galleries that offered plenty of room for viewing space.
Not that Marino and his lively group of supporters were complaining. The 28-year-old Virginia native shot a 5-under, bogey-free 65 on the famed Blue Course, an early echo of the tradition established by Rich Beem, Tom Scherrer, Frank Lickliter and others who got their career-changing first victory in the suburbs of Washington.
“I got some crazy friends that came out to watch me this week,” said Marino, who grew up a half-hour away in Fairfax, Va., attended the University of Virginia and had a career-best second-place finish in February at the Mayakoba Golf Classic.
“And today, I think it’s safe to say it was probably going to be the mildest day, especially if I keep playing well. I know tomorrow is July 4th, and I’m teeing off in the afternoon. So that gives them plenty of time to get looped up. They’re rowdy, but it definitely feels good to have them out there supporting me.”
Marino held a one-stoke lead over Rod Pampling, Jeff Overton, Bob Estes and Lickliter. Defending champion K.J. Choi, one of only two players in the field ranked in the world’s top 10, shot a 68 that included a birdie from the greenside bunker at No. 8.
“I turn around and everybody clapped. And I make it,” said Choi, who exchanged a high-five with his caddie and flashed a head-shaking smile as he went to retrieve his ball from the hole.
Steve Stricker, the other top-10 player, carded a 71.
Beem and the others won their Kemper titles a few miles away at the maligned TPC at Avenel course. Now there’s more prestige involved: Congressional is the site and Woods is the host, even though the world No. 1 player’s recent knee surgery has kept him away this week and has considerably lessened the buzz that surrounded the inaugural edition of his event last year.
Woods’ absence contributed to a 7 percent drop in attendance from 2007’s opening round , despite relatively pleasant weather that replaced last year’s typical July humidity.
Also much improved were the greens, nice and smooth instead of bumpy and unpredictable, although they became somewhat crusty as the temperature hit 90 in the late afternoon. The conditions produced 53 rounds or par or better.
“This golf course is very difficult from tee to green,” said Notah Begay III, who shot a 67 on a sponsor’s exemption as he continues his comeback from back surgery. “And you have to hit some fairways and put the ball in the right spots on the greens. And if you do, you’re going to hit some good putts, and I could easily have shot 5 or 6 under today.”
Marino’s round was steady and workmanlike. His longest made putt was 12 feet, but he never 3-putted or had a par putt longer than 5 feet. He birdied three of the first four holes, the par-3 13th and scenic par-4 18th, finishing off the round with an 8-foot putt.
He is leading a tour event after any round for only the second time in his career – on a course he got to play an occasion as a teenager.
“I played a bunch of junior golf growing up here, all over the D.C. area, so it feels great to get off to this good start,” Marino said. “And I’m looking forward to the rest of the week.”