CHASKA, Minn. – Two men have won the PGA Championship since 2006, two men dominated last week's WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, and lo and behold, the same two men were the day-one headliners at the year's final major.
Tiger Woods made five birdies and no bogeys to card a five-under-par 67 and take a one-shot lead over playing partner and familiar foe Padraig Harrington at the 91st PGA Championship at Hazeltine National Golf Club on Thursday.
"I played really well today," said Woods, who began his round on the back nine and birdied three of the four par-5s. "I hit just a bunch of good shots. This round could have been really low. I missed a bunch of putts out there. So it was just a very positive start."
Robert Allenby, Mathew Goggin, Hunter Mahan and Alvaro Quiros were two shots back at three-under 69 after the morning rounds. Three-time major winner Vijay Singh and 2001 PGA champion David Toms joined them with a pair of 69s in the afternoon.
Harrington is ranked just 10th in the world after a lackluster 2009 in which he has been fiddling with his swing, but he says he's unlocked something in the last six weeks, and his rivalry with Woods has been a long time in the making.
The Irishman beat Woods at the unofficial Target World Challenge in 2002, and again at the 2006 Dunlop Phoenix in Japan, where Woods blew a three-shot lead. Both keep to themselves and work long hours on the range. When Woods left the Tour for the last half of 2008, Harrington won the two majors played without golf's major domo.
They have developed a healthy respect for one-another.
Woods on Harrington: "Paddy is just — he's a grinder."
Harrington on Woods: "Amazing."
It was a show of respect by Woods that he came to Harrington's defense after their Bridgestone clash ended prematurely Sunday, with Harrington making an 8 on 16. Woods blamed European tour official John Paramor for putting the final twosome on the clock, a move that, in retrospect, may have sabotaged Harrington.
Didn't Paramor know that's Tiger's job?
All will be forgotten, if not forgiven, if golf's two leading men continue to play as well as they did Thursday. Woods, second at Hazeltine in 2002, showed why he is favored to win his first major of 2009 and his 15th overall. He hit 12 of 14 fairways and 15 of 18 greens in regulation, and recovered from his mistakes.
After losing his 3-wood second shot right on the 633-yard, par-5 third hole — not the place to miss — he pitched his third under branches and over the bunkers guarding the green, then made his 30-foot birdie putt.
"That third shot was a good shot," Woods said, "because I didn't have a very good lie. I told Stevie — it was only 60 yards — but, 'We'll do well to keep this on the green.'"
Woods took a pedestrian 29 putts on the day, which gave the rest of the field something of a reprieve, but he hardly sounded disappointed.
The longest course in major championship history at 7,674 yards, Hazeltine played shorter Thursday. PGA officials moved the tees to the front of the tee boxes on the seventh, 12th and 13th holes. More than one player called the wide fairways "generous."
That left the course playable not only for long drivers like Woods and Quiros, but also more modest-to-short hitters like Toms and Paul Goydos (two-under 70).
Harrington and Woods were even off the tee for most of the day, with Harrington holding a slight edge in average driving distance, 316 to 315.
Four days after their mostly silent duel in Akron, Ohio, they chatted often as they toured warm, slightly breezy Hazeltine. Harrington matched Woods with two birdies on the back nine and three on the front, but bogeyed the par-4 first hole, their 10th.
They even shared lunch, sort of, with Woods tucking into a sandwich and trail mix on the fourth tee, and Harrington wolfing down a banana.
"He's an easy guy to play golf with," Harrington said. "He plays nice golf. He's a perfect gentleman out on the golf course in terms of, he says 'good shot' when it needs to be said. He does his thing. It's very simple playing golf with him."
Rich Beem, the winner here in '02 and the third member of the marquee group, survived a double-bogey 7 on the third hole and carded a one-under 71.
A light rain fell on the afternoon starters, but only briefly, and it didn't explain why most of the best rounds came Thursday morning.
Phil Mickelson, playing with Paul Azinger and Toms in the afternoon, never looked sharp. He double-bogeyed the par-4 10th hole, made just two birdies and is in danger of missing the cut after a two-over 74.
Lee Westwood, who came within a shot of the playoffs at the 2008 U.S. Open and the 2009 British Open, headed a large group at two-under 70. Sergio Garcia, also searching for his first major, was at 71.
Without the burden of trying to win — no one wins on Thursday — Harrington said he found himself able to better appreciate Tiger's play.
"Today was a lot more relaxed, a lot more talking and chatting," said the 37-year-old Irishman, who is attempting to repeat as PGA champion, like Woods in 2006-'07. "And, yeah, I watched a lot of his shots. It's amazing."
Woods was through the green in two on the 642-yard, par-5 15th hole, and reached the 572-yard, par-5 seventh hole with a driver and a 6-iron.
But even he found himself shaking his head at Quiros, who accidentally hit into Woods, Harrington and Beem on the 606-yard, par-5 11th hole. Although the drive plays uphill and the hole played into the wind, Quiros's second shot trickled onto the green while the group in front was still putting.
"He apologized," Woods said. "I said, 'Nothing to apologize for. That's a hell of a shot.'"
Harrington will keep trying to find the balance between playing his own game and watching the amazing Woods. Going head-to-head with the best player in the world tends to drain even those who play well Thursday and Friday. They let down their guard in Tiger's absence and fare worse on the weekend. The challenger knows this; he must stay close for many reasons.
"It's always a good sign if you're matched up with Tiger," Harrington said. "It means you're in the right place."