Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke led the European challenge on the first day of the US PGA Championship at Valhalla, Louisville, Kentucky, with a superb four under par 68 as World No.1 Tiger Woods proved he is still in magnificent form.
Woods, winner of the US Open by 15 strokes and the Open Championship by eight, carded a six under par 66 in baking heat to share the lead with fellow American Scott Dunlap – two ahead of Clarke.
Clarke successfully got up and down from a bunker for a birdie at the last to move within two strokes of Dunlap and Woods, seeking to defend the title and become the first player to win three majors in one season since Ben Hogan in 1953.
Clarke, who beat Woods in the final of the WGC-Andersen Consulting Match Play Championship at La Costa in February, was once again on a Tiger hunt with six birdies and four bogeys in the tough, humid conditions.
It was his first strong start to a major since he led the Open Championship at Royal Troon and revealed a lesson from coach Butch Harmon in the morning had helped – along with a decision to return his old trusty clubs to the golf bag.
Clarke said: "I hit the ball real solid and hopefully this is another step along the road of getting into contention for majors, which is what I want.
"I would love to be in the last group with Tiger on Sunday, but there's a long way to go yet."
Yet the undisputed centre of attention was the man trying to emulate Ben Hogan's unique 1953 feat of winning three majors in one season. Woods, also the defending champion, missed a 10-foot birdie chance on the first, but birdied the 535-yard second.
His drive finished in the left-hand rough and on a downslope, but he still managed to get into a greenside bunker, came out to six feet and made it. He bogeyed the 465-yard fifth - the hole Colin Montgomerie eagled in practice yesterday by holing a six-iron - but he was on in two at the long seventh and just missed his 35-foot eagle attempt, then converted chances from 15 and 10 feet on the next two greens, before capitalising again on the 511-yard 10th.
After four birdies in a row, Woods missed out at the 11th, but birdied the 12th to collect his fifth birdie in six holes. After narrowly failing with birdie attempts from close range at the 15th and 16th, Woods did well to save par at the 17th before emulating Clarke’s finish, splashing out to four feet at the last for a closing birdie.
The little-known Dunlap who played a lot of his golf in South Africa, eagled the second, bogeyed the next, but charged into top spot with four birdies in the following seven holes.
Frenchman Jean Van de Velde produced a solid start with a 70, one more than Las Vegas-based Ed Fryatt. Son of former soccer professional Jim, who scored the fastest goal in Football League history (12 seconds) before emigrating. Fryatt came into the championship on Monday as replacement for injured former winner Steve Elkington and birdied the second and sixth before rattling off 10 pars in a row.
Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez, who finished joint runner-up to Woods in the US Open, showed once again that he has the appetite for the big occasion.
A round of 70, two under par, left the man from Malaga in a strong position, two in front of England's Lee Westwood, a four-time winner of the European Tour in 2000.
Sergio Garcia, who produced the Canon Shot of the Year in running Woods to within one shot last year, finished on 74 alongside Paul McGinley of Ireland while 1999 Open champion Paul Lawrie had a 75.
It was another tortuous day in the sun, however, for Colin Montgomerie. After a six-hour 73 that left him looking out on his feet the Scot instantly went seeking some shade saying he felt unwell.
It was a tough day for other European Tour Members with Padraig Harrington shooting 75, Jose Maria Olazabal 76, both Gary Orr and Phil Price 77, Nick Faldo 79 and Ryder Cup captain Sam Torrance an 82 which included a quintuple bogey nine on the 17th.
Play was so slow that the first round could not even be completed before nightfall. Andrew Coltart was among those affected, but having turned in a two under 34 he had fallen back to two over before the suspension came.