Fiji’s Vijay Singh headed the European Tour challenge on a tough opening day of the 85th US PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club, Rochester, New York, as Sergio Garcia, Padraig Harrington and Ian Poulter stayed in touch with first round leaders Phil Mickelson and Rod Pampling.
Singh, an Honorary Member of The European Tour, won the title in 1998 at Sahalee before adding the 2000 Masters title to his Major collection. He fired a one under par 69 while Mickelson and Pampling fired 66s.
Meanwhile Garcia, Harrington and the colourful Poulter, who won last week's inaugural Nordic Open, were the top Europeans on the leaderboard on 72, one behind current Volvo Order of Merit leader, Ernie Els.
For the third time this year Singh is among the leaders in a Major Championship, following his joint sixth finish in the Masters Tournament and joint second in the Open Championship last month with another commanding performance. Four birdies and three dropped shots put him among the handful of players under par.
Last year’s Open Champion, Els, also demonstrated his liking for the big occasion, opening with a one over par 71, a score the South African felt could have been better.
“I was disappointed to finish with a bogey but one over par is not too bad,” said Els. “The course was pretty tough and the greens a little bumpy in the afternoon so felt it was okay to get away with one over par. I am striking the ball nicely and feel I have a good chance this week but have got to keep it going.”
Els was joined in the group on one over par by another European Tour Member in Argentina’s Angel Cabrera while Poulter, whose black and gold hairstyle continues to keep the Englishman in the limelight, maintained his good run of form with a two over par 72.
“I did everything I wanted to,” said Poulter, who also won The Celtic Manor Resort Wales Open on The 2003 European Tour International Schedule. “I only hit three or four drivers out there and hit every fairway I wanted to. I bogeyed the two par threes on the front nine and a silly three putt on the 17th.
"Everyone tells you to keep it on the fairway and I did that but made a couple of silly mistakes on the par threes. It is a real grind out there with 110% concentration just to hit the fairway and then it is just as tough to hit the small greens. But overall pleased with today and it is all coming good.”
Poulter’s score was matched by South African Tim Clark, Spain’s Garcia and Irishman Harrington, who managed to keep his mind focused on the job despite the impending arrival of his first child. Despite four bogeys in succession from the fifth Harrington played the remaining holes in two under par for his 72.
“I suppose I must have been a bit rusty out there because all my dropped shots were on the front nine but it was great to finish with a birdie at 17 and I almost holed it on 18. That would have been some finish,” he said.
There were also highly impressive debuts for the seven European Tour Members making their first appearances in the US PGA Championship with three over par 73s posted by Brian Davis, Luke Donald and Alastair Forsyth with Gary Evans and Trevor Immelman a further shot back on 74, Bradley Dredge on 75 and Fredrik Jacobson on 76.
There were, however, disappointing starts for some Members particularly Colin Montgomerie, who returned an 82 at the Oak Hill course where he helped Europe win the Ryder Cup eight years ago.
Mickelson, playing his 46th major and hoping to make it into the winner's enclosure for the first time, birdied three of his first four holes, including the long 13th after hitting his second into the "Hill of Fame" - an area so-named because the giant trees have plaques on them dedicated to famous players of the past.
The left-hander hit one, but it came out into the rough and left him a clear shot to the green. He took advantage of his good fortune there by pitching to 18 feet and making the putt.
Mickelson, runner-up to David Toms two years ago, reached five under with five to play, but finished with a bogey to fall back alongside Pampling - the Queenslander remembered for leading after the first round in the 1999 Open Championship at Carnoustie and then missing the halfway cut.
"It was one good day...it was a nice start but it is nothing more than that," said 33 year old Mickelson, who tied for sixth at The International last week, his best finish since placing third at the Masters Tournament in April.
"I felt like I played well and shot four under on a very difficult course. Heading into this week, I knew I was playing better than I had all year because of my performance last week."
Pampling, playing in his first US PGA Championship reeled off four birdies for a blemish-free round to join Mickelson at the top of the leaderboard.