- The Washington Times - Friday, June 15, 2001

TULSA, Okla. For the first time in 14 months, Tiger Woods looked mortal at a major championship.

The 25-year-old Woods, in search of an unparalleled fifth consecutive Grand Slam title, dogged his way around the front nine yesterday at Southern Hills, slipping to 3-over before first-round play was suspended by a severe electrical storm.

Woods, one of 90 players still on the 6,973-yard, par-70 layout when play was halted at 4:39 p.m. EST, finds himself languishing in the wake of Hale Irwin, the surprising leader in the clubhouse. Despite being the oldest and shortest-hitting player in the field, the 56-year-old Irwin carded six birdies en route to a brilliant 67 on the windswept track.

The Senior Tour stalwart, whose resume includes three U.S. Open titles (1974, '79 and '90) and two Senior Open titles (1998 and 2000), holds a two-stroke advantage over two players who finished at 69, Loren Roberts and Stewart Cink.

"I just enjoy the heck out of it; being with these younger players is just terrific," said Irwin, still one of the most accurate iron players in the game. "I don't know as I'd take it on as a steady diet they'd thrash me unmercifully. But I had my day today, and that was fun."

Irwin's spectacular round ended with the shot of the day, a perfectly shaped, left-to-right 2-iron from 198 yards uphill that came to rest within 20 inches of the pin. Irwin tapped in the birdie on the layout's toughest hole and spent the rest of the afternoon reveling in adulation from fans and fellow players.

"That's absolutely awesome," said 21-year-old Sergio Garcia (70) of Irwin's performance. "What a competitor… . He always does things like that like at Medinah [at the 1999 PGA Championship], he played very well. It's great to see him up there at the top."

And it's almost shocking to see Woods bunched in the pack near the bottom. Heading into the Open, Woods had played 19 consecutive rounds in the majors at par or better, dating back to an opening-round 75 at the 2000 Masters. But from the start yesterday, his game looked extremely shaky.

He was fortunate to make pars on the first two holes after missing both greens. He 3-putted the third hole from 35 feet, gutted out ugly pars on the next five holes and then authored an absolute disaster at the ninth.

After a perfect tee shot found the left-center of the fairway, Woods had just 84 yards to a front right pin on the 374-yard hole. With the entire gallery expecting him to stuff a wedge and begin a charge with his first birdie at Southern Hills, Woods hit perhaps the worst shot of his pro career. The ball squirted off the hosel of his wedge, a virtual shank, traveled 25 yards right of his intended target into the upper branches of a tree and plopped down into a hopelessly plugged lie in the front greenside bunker.

How miffed was Woods about the shot? He didn't even wait for playing partner Jeff Quinney's chip to stop rolling before he splashed out of the sand. His hasty bunker shot found the back rough. He gouged out to 10 feet and lipped out the putt for a galling double-bogey and a front-nine 38.

Perhaps Woods' poor play can be explained by the interminable pace. He likes to play briskly, and it took his group more than three hours to complete nine holes. Perhaps Quinney's ghastly exhibition was a distraction; the 22-year-old defending U.S. Amateur champion made just two pars on the front nine, chopping his way around in 45 strokes. Or maybe Woods was simply due for a slow start at a major championship.

Whatever the case, Woods will face an uphill 4-footer for par at No. 10 when first-round play resumes today, and there's little doubt he caught a good break with the arrival of bad weather. Not only will the rain soften and slow the layout's concrete greens, the hiatus will allow him plenty of time to cool down and huddle with swing instructor Butch Harmon.

"I'll talk with you guys tomorrow," Woods told reporters as he left the locker room in a huff when play was officially postponed after a long delay that included a tornado warning.

Nearly two-thirds of the 156-man field was still on the course when the thunder and lightning began. The last threesome to tee off had not even completed two holes. The USGA plans to resume first-round play at 8 a.m. and start the second round at 10 a.m.

The threesome of Brad Faxon, Eduardo Romero and John Huston, the first group scheduled to tee off for second-round play, has four first-round holes left to complete. According to the plan, the last scheduled second-round threesome (Jason Duffner, Wes Heffernan and Chris Anderson) will not begin second-round play until 6:30 p.m., meaning they have no chance of finishing 36 holes.

"It's looking like a long week," said South Africa's Retief Goosen, who at 3-under through seven holes had the day's other premier round going when the horn blew. "Tomorrow the course is going to play a lot different from what we've seen… . The greens are going to be softer. But you aren't going to get any roll, so it will play a lot longer. It's probably going to be a case of who can adapt the quickest."

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