- The Washington Times - Friday, July 6, 2007

Call it a dark debut.

Neither Mother Nature nor tournament host Tiger Woods did much smiling at Congressional in yesterday’s premiere of the AT&T National. The sunshine, like Tiger’s putting stroke, pulled a no-show on 7,204-yard, par-70 Old Blue.

Woods, no doubt somewhat distracted by first-time fatherhood and his myriad duties as host of the inaugural event, looked atypically uncomfortable with the Scotty Cameron blade that has been an ultra-steady standby for his last 11 major uprisings. Struggling mightily with the slow pace of Congressional’s moist greens, the world’s No. 1 player three-putted his way to a forgettable 73 that leaves him seven strokes behind a fivesome at 4 under and in some danger of losing an invitation to his own weekend party.

“I could not get a ball to the hole,” Woods said after three-putting three times and matching his worst first-round performance of the season in relation to par, a 75 at the Players Championship. “I worked so hard at the U.S. Open feeding putts [to the hole on slick greens]. And I didn’t practice as much as I probably should have last week on my putting. Unfortunately, it showed up glaringly.”

Few players actually enjoyed exemplary days on Congressional’s greens, which between intermittent rain and notorious Poa annua seed-heads rolled at nowhere near the speed nor consistency players experienced three weeks ago at Oakmont or a decade ago when Congressional last held a U.S. Open.

“The greens weren’t maybe as smooth as we all would have liked, so making putts was difficult,” said Australian veteran Stuart Appleby, who finished his round with three consecutive birdies to post a 66 and join Jim Furyk, Vijay Singh, K.J. Choi and Joe Ogilvie atop the leader board. “Hopefully, the greens will dry out a little bit [over the next few days]. But Poa annua is a temperamental grass that doesn’t like the heat much either.”

Woods‘ most glaring miscue came at the 16th, where he followed a midrange birdie miss with a hastily struck clean-up effort from an awkward stance. Straddling the line of playing partner Charles Howell III (73), Woods yanked the 28-inch putt, an extremely uncharacteristic mental lapse from golf’s most meticulous technician.

“That was one of my worst putting rounds I’ve had all year,” Woods said. “I’m about to ready to break this [putter].”

Perhaps Woods could have used some advice from his former caddie, Congressional member Mike “Fluff” Cowan. But Furyk isn’t likely to part with the course regular after the combination of his expert driving and Cowan’s quality reads propelled the dogged Furyk to a share of the first-round lead.

Furyk, who has six top-10s this season but is still in search of his first victory, missed just two fairways and made just one bogey during yesterday’s opener, again confirming his status as one of the game’s stalwarts.

“[Cowan] was able to help out last time I was here [2005 Booz Allen Classic] and today on a few key putts where he made good reads,” said Furyk, who comes into this week off of consecutive top-five finishes. “I’d like to have a putt on Sunday to win and for him to say, ‘It looks like it’s a cup out, but it’s really right edge.’ … Ultimately, though, I still have to hit the golf shots.”

Nobody hit more pure shots yesterday than Singh, who battered 17 greens on his loop around Old Blue, reaffirming his place as one of the game’s premier ball-strikers. Predictably, given the bumpy, slow putting surfaces, Singh’s only bogey of the day came as the result of a three-putt at No. 14. And four of his five birdies came after lasered approaches left him inside 10 feet.

Perhaps the day’s only real feel-good plots came courtesy of Fred Funk (67) and Jamie Lovemark (67). The 51-year-old Funk, who skipped this week’s U.S. Senior Open for one more run at a hometown victory, belied his age again during yesterday’s gallery-adoring opening salvo.

And Lovemark, fresh off a victory at the NCAA championship and runner-up performance on the Nationwide Tour (Rochester), continues to inspire awe as an amateur. The 19-year-old freshman prodigy from Southern Cal rebounded from an early double-bogey on No. 11, the layout’s toughest hole, with a seamless 16-hole, five-birdie sprint to the finish. No amateur has won a PGA Tour event since Phil Mickelson claimed the 1991 Nortel Open. But the lean bomber from the West Coast certainly looks like a future star.

“I was real calm today,” said Lovemark, who has made the cut in each of his three previous starts against pros. “I was real calm today. I was nervous on the first tee like anybody is supposed to be. And after that it was auto pilot, just kind of taking control, cruising.”

Such confidence sounds eerily like that of a young Woods. And with Woods in danger of missing the cut, perhaps Lovemark is what the inaugural AT&T National needs.