Tim Clark played it safe on the par-5s to shoot to the top of the Masters leader board

Tim Clark played it safe on the par-5s to shoot to the top of the Masters leader board

Byron Nelson's Ball Position

AUGUSTA, Ga. — On Thursday at the par-5 13th hole, Tim Clark had only 206 yards remaining to reach the green. He laid up.

In the first round of the Masters, Clark took a page from the playbook of 2007 champion Zach Johnson , laying up on all four par-5s and making birdies on every one for a 4-under 68 and the early clubhouse lead at the 2009 Masters.

Like Johnson, Clark is a wedging machine, and the new, nastier National rewards such players.

"That's just my game really, if you've watched me," Clark said after his round. "I just wish we would play a few PGA Tour events on par 3 courses, because I would have a chance."

That remark elicited laughter from those assembled, because Clark had in fact won the Par-3 Contest here on Wednesday. But on the off chance that you overlooked the 33-year-old, don't worry. You had ample cause.

Start with the obvious: He's but 5 feet, 7 inches tall. Clark has said the only time he played golf with someone shorter than him was a round he played with 5'4" Welshman Ian Woosnam. At the 2005 Presidents Cup, Clark and Vijay Singh were set to take on Stewart Cink and 5'8" Fred Funk, who was late to the tee.

"I've got my midget," the 6'2" Singh said to the 6'4" Cink. "Where's yours?"

Clark was not amused, and blistered his opening drive.

The diminutive South African has never lacked talent, and pound-for-pound is arguably one of the better players on the PGA Tour. Remember, this is the guy who easily beat Tiger Woods 4 & 2 in the second round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship earlier this season.

Alas, he was throttled by Rory McIlroy 4 & 3 the next day, leaving Clark, the winless wonder, trophy-less in his seven-plus-year PGA Tour career.

"That was a big experience, playing Tiger," Clark said. "You know you are under the microscope, and you know that even the day before going out there." As he did again at Augusta on Thursday, Clark said, "I went with the attitude of, Try and enjoy it."

Clark has made his share of headlines, just not in a Monday newspaper. His career earnings reached nearly $12 million by the end of 2008, giving him a dubious claim: He's the Tour's leading money winner among those without a victory.

He's had his chances. Clark led through 36 holes at the 2007 Masters, but was done in by a third-round 80 and finished T13. The previous year, he sank his bunker shot on the 72nd hole to finish second. But Clark's golfing excellence has been fleeting even outside Augusta.

He went 10 under through 13 holes in the second round of the 2008 Deutsche Bank Championship and needed birdies on two of his last five holes to shoot the fourth 59 on Tour. Instead he bogeyed his last two holes and shot 62. He ended up finishing T15.

Clark began the 2007 Tour Championship without having played a practice round, and tied the course record with an opening-round 62. But he finished T7.

After winning his second SA Open in 2005, Clark flew 30 hours to Palm Springs, Calif., where he'd never seen any of the four host courses for the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. He played brilliantly and finished second.

All told, he has six seconds, no firsts. Why the trouble closing? The temptation is to point to something in his makeup, but that can be dismissed. Clark won twice on the Nationwide tour, and he's triumphed overseas, most recently at the Australian Open, where he closed with a 67 and beat Matthew Goggin in a playoff in December.

The truer explanation for Clark's unfinished business is the spate of injuries that have plagued his career. He hurt his wrist at the 2001 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and had season-ending surgery to repair tendon damage that March.

Because of the injury, he told GOLF Magazine in 2007, "I have a limitation with my arms." He can't do pushups, and said of his fitness regimen, "Michelob Ultra is my beer of choice because then I feel like I'm working out."

Clark also struggled with a bulging disc in his neck for 14 months in 2006 and part of '07. In hopes of easing the discomfort, he began to tilt his head to the right at address, like Jack Nicklaus. Not only did this help with his pain; as Clark said later, "it helped my golf swing."

Even so, he admits he's been underwhelmed with his results. Perhaps this is the week Clark finishes what he's started. Or not. He hardly sounds overconfident.

Clark's best bet: A week full of warm, windless conditions, and the soft, receptive greens that greeted him on Thursday. Maybe he'll keep wedging the course into submission, the way Johnson did, and can trick himself into thinking he's still playing the Par-3 Contest. It would be a feat of mental gymnastics, but then again, so was beating Woods.

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