Open Champion Todd Hamilton underlined his championship credentials after an opening six under par 66 at Mount Juliet Conrad took him one clear of the field in the WGC – American Express Championship.
Hamilton, who beat South Africa’s Ernie Els in a play-off at Royal Troon in July, marked his first tournament in Ireland with a superb seven birdie round, his only dropped shot coming on the final hole after he had birdied the previous four.
That took him clear of a group of six players that included the Spanish Ryder Cup pairing of Miguel Angel Jiménez and Sergio Garcia and their Ryder Cup team-mate Luke Donald of England, American Steve Flesch and the Australian duo of Stuart Appleby and Adam Scott.
But most of the attention was focused on the defending champion Tiger Woods and how he would perform with a back injury. It was not the lowest round of is career but almost certainly the bravest. Virtually every shot was followed by a grimace as the World Number Two was clearly struggling with the pain. But playing with a shortened swing and at some points almost doubling up in agony, Woods posted an impressive four under par 68, helped by a series of long putts, to lie just two shots off the pace.
“I thought it might loosen up a little bit, but it didn’t,” said Woods. “I was hoping the spasms would go away but that didn’t happen either. I just had to get through it somehow and post a number.
“Hopefully I feel better tomorrow, that each and every day it’ll feel better. That’s the hope at least.”
Hamilton warmed up with a bit of fun on the putting course at Mount Juliet Conrad, before heading out on the pristine Championship course.
“For me, playing golf in Japan for 12 years, to play for this amount of money on really nice golf courses, is fun. This whole year has been quite fun to be honest.”
Donald returned to action for the first time since his victorious Ryder Cup debut in Detroit, suitably relaxed after spending the past week on a beach in Puerto Rico.
Scott was another player to take a bit of a break, enjoying a three week holiday back home in Australia before coming to Ireland. A double bogey on the 11th looked as if it would put a severe dent in his challenge but the European Tour Member bounced back with five birdies in his last six holes to lie just one off the lead.
“I was playing nice and then kind of blew it with a three putt on the 11th ,” said Scott, winner of THE PLAYERS Championship earlier this year. “That got me fired up a little bit and finished strong. That was important today. Six behind would have been hard work for the rest of the week.”
Garcia, who shot a course record 62 the last time this event was held at Mount Juliet Conrad in 2002, continued his love affair with this particular part of Kilkenny with a five under par opening round, a dropped shot on the last costing him a share of the lead.
Jiménez, who will partner Garcia in the WGC – World Cup in Seville later this year, also shot a five under par 67, continuing the rich vein of form which has seen him win four titles already this year.