Tiger Woods marked his first competitive appearance in Ireland in sensational fashion, a new course record 65 at Mount Juliet giving the World Number One the lead after the first round of the World Golf Championships – American Express Championship.
Although the majority of the locals in the 18,700 gallery came to cheer on Woods’s playing partner Padraig Harrington who carded a 69, they left marveling at the talent of the 26 year old American who rattled in seven birdies in his flawless seven under par effort.
Nearest challengers to the World Number One at the end of a pulsating day’s play in the sunshine were his fellow countrymen Steve Lowery and David Toms who posted 66s while The European Tour challenge was spearheaded by Gary Evans, Retief Goosen and Vijay Singh who finished amongst six players on 67.
But the day belonged to the World Number One who reached the turn in 33 thanks to birdies at the fourth, sixth and seventh, before producing a grandstand finish, four birdies in his last six holes crowned with a curling 25 foot effort on the 18th green.
Although understandably delighted with his form, Woods, already a winner of five World Golf Championships events, admitted the pristine condition of the Mount Juliet course had helped bring his ‘A’ game to the fore.
“I think the golf course is playing absolutely gorgeous out there,” he said. “The fairways are perfect and the greens are the best greens we’ve putted on all year including the Majors. These things are absolutely pure.”
Woods also took time out to praise the Irish crowds. He said: “They are not only gracious but they understand the game of golf. A good example was Padraig on the fourth hole where he hit his tee shot off to the right and it was a tough shot.
“He managed to hit his second to the front left part of the green and they gave a really loud clap, really loud applause. They understood how difficult a golf shot that was and that was the only place he could have put it – so it is great to play in front of the galleries that are knowledgeable.”
One of Woods’s nearest challengers, Steve Lowery, continued to tap into the rich vein of form which has seen him finish in the top ten in five of the last six events on the US PGA Tour. Highlight of the 41 year old’s 66 was an eagle three at the 552 yard fifth, where he pitched in from 35 yards out.
Fellow American Toms could not quite match that but the 2001 US PGA Champion was similarly flawless, two birdie putts dropping on the front nine while four found the bottom of the cup on the inward half, including from 12 feet at the last, for his 66.
One shot behind on 67 Gary Evans was one of the happiest men in the field, having secured his debut in a World Golf Championships event at the last minute last week thanks to his sixth place finish in the Linde German Masters which moved him into the top 20 on the Volvo Order of Merit.
The 33 year old Englishman made sure he made the best of his opportunity with a superb start, five birdies in his first eight holes helping him to the turn in 32 and continuing a fantastic 2002 which already has represented his best ever earnings year on The European Tour.
Evans has already notched seven top ten finishes on Tour this year and admitted he owed a large debt to coach Ewen Murray, the Sky TV commentator, who has succeeded in re-establishing the Englishman’s belief in his own ability.
“A cousin of mine once told me that if you are not happy with the people around you, you will never perform, so a couple of years ago I changed coaches and went to Ewen and he has been my strength really.
“He made me believe in myself again and told me how I’ve got to work hard if I want to succeed. Basically I’ve just dedicated myself a lot more and it is working. I’m feeling like I can compete at the highest level again, which is something I haven’t felt for the last eight or nine years.”
Joining Evans on 67 were his fellow European Tour Members Retief Goosen and Vijay Singh alongside Chris DiMarco, Jerry Kelly and Mike Weir, the last winner of the event in 2000.
Goosen admitted a new putter had helped his cause immensely as seven birdies in his first ten holes proved, while Singh concentrated on the other end of the bag, a solid driving round being the basis for his six birdies.
The good news for The European Tour challenge continued when José Coceres, Open Champion Ernie Els, Ryder Cup Team Member Niclas Fasth and José Maria Olazábal all ended amongst a group of ten players who carded 68 in their first round.