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Course Meets Match in Woods

He eagles the last hole and shoots a 63 for a one-shot lead after the first round of the American Express Championship.

September 29, 2006|Chuck Culpepper | Times Staff Writer

CHANDLER'S CROSS, England -- For a mere $732 at the Grove's posh country spa, you can get five hours of treatment, including warm marine mud, spiritual energy balancing and the resort's skin-soothing honey.

Or if you're Tiger Woods, you might just consider the golf course the spa.

Restored to stroke play, where he throne-sits after two weeks of match play where he lost, loosed on a course Stewart Cink suggested they should rename "Tiger Woods," grouped with chum Darren Clarke for 18 holes of needling, grinning and giggling. Woods clearly reveled in all that banter.

He shot an eight-under-par 63 for the first-round lead, treating the American Express Championship to an arsenal wizened Brits regard with art-museum awe.

His 62nd shot prompted their final gasps as it screamed from the 18th fairway to rest 20 feet left of the cup, precisely as the three-wood had ordered.

His 63rd shot touched off their final din as that putt rolled in for an eagle.

His comments suggested love at first sight.

"There are a few golf courses that you play for the first time that you say, 'You know what, I just see the shots around the golf course,' " Woods said. "Those are the golf courses that, even if you're playing poorly going into the event, for some reason things kind of turn around and you play great."

For similar courses, he listed St. Andrews and Firestone, lending fine company to the Grove, whose par-71, 7,106-yard maiden pro-tournament voyage supplied enough cushiness for two 64s (Padraig Harrington, Ian Poulter), two 65s (Cink, Ernie Els), two 66s (including David Howell), six 67s (including Jim Furyk) and five 68s (including Clarke).

Those scores became parenthetical when Woods got going, as Cink had thought they might. During his practice round, Cink noticed several "wide" fairways and 18 "softer" greens.

"It's a perfect golf course for him," Cink said.

By the time Woods started pursuing his sixth straight PGA Tour title by going out in three pars and six birdies for a 29 at the turn, visions of 59 or 58 stirred in some spectators, if not in Woods.

"No, sorry," he said.

So he strung five pars before his birdie-par-bogey-eagle finish allowed him to set the course record.

"Did I?" he said.

And he played the gamut from grinning to giggling to guffawing.

"It's always fun playing with Darren, no matter what," he said. "We had a great time playing with and against each other at the Ryder Cup, and any time we play practice rounds or we play in competition, we're always needling each other the entire day."

They began with a scene they repeated throughout the day in the rolling hills just northwest of London. They walked from the first tee to the fairway almost shoulder to shoulder, a couple of chatterboxes. Besides their friendship and their embrace after the Ryder Cup last week, they've also shared loss in 2006, cancer taking Woods' father, Earl, at 74 in May, and Clarke's wife, Heather, at 39 in August.

Even on the 18th tee box after Woods' lone bogey, they seemed to needle each other.

If all that looked somewhat different, the leaderboard looked the same as ever. On four of Woods' six birdies on the front nine, he hit his seven-iron to anywhere from four to 12 feet. From 270 yards to the 18th green, he blasted his self-proclaimed shot of the day.

Moments later, he had the 17th 63 of his career, to go with his two 62s and his four 61s; the Britons in the audience had seen the kind of round they craved from their reigning Open champion when he turned up in London three weeks ago, and the frown Woods shared with his Ryder Cup teammates looked repaired, as can happen at a spa.

"Yeah, Tiger is a legend, isn't he?" Howell said. "He looked like he was struggling with his game last week and still came away with three points.

"Obviously, with those greens out there ... Tiger is going to give himself lots of opportunities, and we know what a great putter he is, so he's back to being the man to beat."

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