Defending champion Tiger Woods gave himself the perfect start in his quest for his sixth consecutive stroke play tournament victory when he moved into the lead after the first round of the World Golf Championships – American Express Championship at The Grove. However, the World Number One had to rely on an eagle three at the 18th to vault his two nearest challengers, European Tour Members Padraig Harrington and Ian Poulter.
Woods, who has won four of the six WGC – American Express Championships contested since the series began at Valderrama in 1999 – looked to have dropped out of contention for pole position when he bogeyed the 17th, but he recovered in sensational fashion at the 18th, a superb drive and a three wood finding the centre of the green before he holed from 20 feet for an eagle three and a new course record eight under par 63 at the Hertfordshire venue.
“I hit the ball really well today,” said Woods, who looked exceedingly comfortable back in the stroke play format after losing in the first round of the HSBC World Match Play Championship at Wentworth two weeks ago before being part of the losing American team in last week’s Ryder Cup at The K Club.
“It’s also nice to be guaranteed to be playing four rounds! At the HSBC Shaun (Micheel) played great and put me under a lot of pressure and I just didn’t do it. And the Ryder Cup although I played all five, it is a very long week and a totally different mindset to playing stroke play.
“Today I made a couple of putts and got things rolling early. That got the momentum on my side and I just kept rolling through it. It was nice to post a good number, considering you’re figuring most of the guys here are going to shoot some pretty good numbers too.”
Two players who did just that were his closest challengers Harrington and Poulter who both performed admirably well after vastly differing build-ups to the tournament, to card respective 64s.
Harrington came into the week after the exhausting drama of The Ryder Cup in his native Ireland while Poulter travelled to the north of his native London desperate to show the form which saw him win in Spain two weeks ago, but a success which came too late for him to be part of Europe’s sensational win at The K Club.
“Obviously I came into this week – Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday – extremely tired,” said the Irishman. “I played a practice round yesterday and it must have been the hardest 18 holes of golf that I have ever had to play in terms of not wanting to be out on the golf course.
“But I knew that coming out today there was a huge difference on tournament days, you always have a little bit of an ‘up’ for tournament days and it is obviously a big week here this week so that was always going to be to my advantage.”
That factor was certainly borne out in Harrington’s start which was truly phenomenal, birdieing five of the first seven holes on his way to an outward half of 30. Although he could not quite reproduce the scoring fireworks on the back nine, he did not drop any shots and finished strongly with birdies on the 15th and 18th.
Alongside Harrington, Poulter was not flawless like his European colleague, but he did produce a storming finish for his 64, birdieing the first, second, fifth, seventh and ninth holes to be ‘home’ in 30.
“Of course I badly wanted to be there (in the Ryder Cup Team) but I’m not envious of anybody,” he said. “Watching the guys tee off on Friday, what an atmosphere, but unfortunately I wasn’t there to experience it.
“But personally, I was excited after winning in Madrid and I just tried to stay positive throughout my own practice last week and let the guys get on and do a great job (in Ireland) and they certainly did that.”
The Ryder Cup theme was continued when American Team Member Stewart Cink shared fourth place alongside Ernie Els on six under par 65 while Harrington’s European team-mate David Howell opened up with a 66 to sit alongside India’s Jyoti Randhawa in a share of sixth place.