CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – Webb Simpson was nervous playing in the same group with Tiger Woods. It sure didn't show Thursday in the Wells Fargo Championship.
Simpson chipped in from 35 yards in front of the par-4 eighth green for eagle, and then made Woods shake his head and smile when he holed a 60-foot birdie putt that might have rolled off the 12th green if the cup didn't get in the way. It led to a 7-under 65 for a share of the lead Thursday with Stewart Cink and Ryan Moore.
“I was nervous playing with Tiger. I prayed a lot out there,'' said Simpson, who lives about a mile away from Quail Hollow and already was on edge about trying to perform well for the neighbors. “Once I made a couple birdies, I kind of enjoyed it.''
There was a lot to like for just about everyone on a steamy day in Carolina. With temperatures pushing 90 and barely a breeze, scoring conditions were so ideal that even par was over the cut line going into the second round. The average score was 71.72, the lowest for the first round in the 10-year history of the tournament.
Woods failed to take advantage. In his first tournament since a tie for 40th at the Masters – his worst performance as a pro at Augusta National – he made too many mistakes early and had to one-putt three of the last four greens for a 71.
“I've got to obviously not make those little mistakes like that tomorrow,'' Woods said. “We've got a long way to go, and we've got some rain coming probably on the weekend, so we're going to have to go get it.''
So many others did just that, including Cink, who has been mired in a slump. He ended an already solid day with three straight birdies, holing a 20-foot putt on the ninth for his lowest round of the year. Moore also birdied his last three holes.
Rickie Fowler, still searching for his first PGA Tour win in his third full season, led a group of five players at 66 that included Patrick Reed, the 21-year-old from Augusta State who has Monday qualified to get in the last two tournaments.
The scoring was so low that about one-quarter of the field shot in the 60s, and half of them broke par.
“I think any time you get tour players in 90-degree weather with not much wind, it's naturally going to soften out the greens,'' Simpson said. “I think you've seen over the years, the hotter it is and the less wind there is, the scores are going to be really good. And I think that's what happened. They can't get the greens too firm with this weather. It will just burn them out.''
He didn't have much of an explanation for his own golf, considering he had only two rounds in the 60s in his previous three starts at Quail Hollow. Plus, there was that apprehension about playing with Woods, and the large crowd the 14-time major champion attracts.
The only other time Simpson played with Woods didn't last long. It was the final round of Doral this year, where Simpson jokingly said, “I accidentally kicked him in the leg and he withdrew.'' Woods left after 11 holes that day with tightness in his left Achilles tendon, which raised questions about his future until Woods won two weeks later at Bay Hill.
Eleven holes at Doral at least gave Simpson a taste of what to expect.
“We went from 10,000 people every hole to zero people,'' he said.
Thousands of fans on a scorching day at Quail Hollow followed them around all afternoon, with Simpson and Geoff Ogilvy (71) in tow. Simpson is the one who generated most of the cheers. He stuffed his tee shot on the par-3 second and his approach on the third to inside 3 feet for birdies, holed a birdie putt just inside 30 feet on the sixth, and then chipped in for his eagle at No. 8.
Simpson joined the morning leaders with a 15-foot birdie putt on the 11th, but no birdie was more unlikely than No. 12. His tee shot went into the right rough, and because of trees blocking the flight of his ball, hit a low bullet that ran up the hill to the back side of the green, leaving him a 60-foot putt that swung sharply to the left and ran quickly away from him.
He was trying to get it within about 6 feet of the hole, and it dove into the cup. Simpson flung his belly putter to the ground and laughed, which is about all he could think of to do.
“I play here a lot, and I knew where I hit it was pretty dead,'' he said. “So, yeah, I'll take it.''
Phil Mickelson recovered from a tee shot that went out-of-bounds and led to triple bogey and shot 71. Rory McIlroy, who earned his first PGA Tour win at Quail Hollow two years ago by closing with a 62, birdied three of the par 5s but three-putted from 18 feet on the 18th hole and had to settle for a 70.
Fowler led the parade of good scoring in the morning with a round of 66 that was so flawless he never came close to a bogey. He had a birdie putt on all but one green, and the longest putt he had for par was 4 feet. He hit 6-iron to the front pin – a tiny target – on the par-5 seventh hole for an eagle, then birdied three of his last four holes.
Fowler has become a fan favorite, especially with young kids in their orange attire, but he still doesn't have what matters. Fowler is not nearly as concerned as everyone else about his 0-71 mark on the PGA Tour. He won the Korea Open last year by beating McIlroy, and he feels as though his game is headed in the right direction.
“I feel that I'm good enough to win,'' Fowler said. “I definitely feel like the amount of people expecting or thinking that I can win is a compliment. I'm not too worried about the talk that goes on about when my first win is coming, but it's my main goal, and that's what I'm focused on.''