- The Washington Times - Friday, August 18, 2000

LOUISVILLE, Ky. The opening round of the 82nd PGA Championship was as predictable as spiked punch at the senior prom.

Tiger Woods, golf's Nike-clad Thor, showed up at Valhalla in typical major championship mode and promptly hammered the layout and most of the field into suspense-shattering submission.

Paired for the first time in competition with the legendary Jack Nicklaus, the 24-year-old Woods posted a seemingly effortless 66 on the 7,167-yard, par-72 layout, matching Scott Dunlap at the top of the first-round leader board.

"That was a real treat to watch," said Nicklaus in obvious awe of the player who has won the last two majors by 23 strokes. "He shot the easiest 66 today… . He missed half a dozen opportunities, it looked like, that were in the hole. [He has] phenomenal control, phenomenal concentration… . His fundamentals are so sound with every club in the bag that it is hard to find a flaw or see how he could lose his concentration or have a problem."

Nicklaus, of course, arrived on the course he designed in 1986 with a monumental emotional problem. His mother died early Wednesday morning, less than a week short of her 91st birthday. Nicklaus desperately wanted to withdraw from the event and return home to grieve with his family, but on Monday his mother made him promise that he would compete in the PGA regardless of her declining condition.

"[She said], 'I don't want to mess up your week. I want you to play,' said Nicklaus. "I had no desire to be here, I promise you. But I felt like that is what she would have wanted me to do."

Nicklaus opened with a double-bogey on the first hole and staggered to a 77. But like a true champion, the winner of 18 majors still managed to set aside his personal suffering long enough to please the horde of well-wishers who came out to support him and praise the player chasing his legacy.

"I don't mind the shoe being on the other foot," said Nicklaus, when asked what it was like to finally be paired with a player now drawing the raves he used to provoke. "It has been on [my] foot long enough, and so it was fun. I really enjoyed it."

So did Woods. Possibly for the first time in his career, Woods attracted less attention from the galleries than his playing partner. While the heaving masses gave Nicklaus what seemed like a perpetual ovation, Woods quietly went about the business of taking the golf course apart.

"Today was a great day for me," said Woods. "Everybody was yelling out 'Jack,' not me… . No one saw me. It was kind of nice."

Though the fans were far less concerned with Woods than usual, every player in the field must have noticed when Woods birdied Nos. 7 through 10 to reach 4-under and explode from the pack at level par and onto the board. Woods carded point-blank birdies at all four par-5s, his second shots leaving him either on the green or green-high each time. And he picked up another stroke to par on the layout's toughest hole, earning a head-shaking smile from Nicklaus with a delicate 12-foot putt.

But perhaps most frightening for the field, Woods burned the lip from inside of 15 feet on Nos. 13, 14, 15 and 16 and nearly holed a bunker shot for eagle at No. 18, meaning his 66 could have easily been a 63 or 64.

"I definitely left a few out there," said Woods, who has now led or been tied for the lead in eight of the last nine rounds in the majors. "[But] any time you can shoot 66 in a major championship, you are going to be pretty happy."

Inside, Woods is probably doing ecstatic somersaults. There might be 54 holes of golf left on the docket, but the relative weakness of the first-round leader board bears all the earmarks of another Woodsian rout. Dunlap, a 37-year-old journeyman, has never won a PGA Tour event and certainly lacks both the constitution and the credentials to tangle with the Tour's titan.

"It is Day No. 1, but [Woods] has won the last two majors by 23 shots," said Dunlap. "I mean, if he's going to do it, he's going to do it. There's no stopping him."

Two strokes behind the leaders, Ireland's Darren Clarke and 1997 PGA champion Davis Love look to be Woods' primary threats. Though Love has been one of the Tour's most outspoken defeatists when it comes to chasing Woods, Clarke actually stared down golf's supernova at the World Match Play Championship six months ago. The 32-year-old Clarke, who shares Woods' swing instructor, Butch Harmon, buried Woods 4 and 3 in the 36-hole match-play final at La Costa in Carlsbad, Calif. Nobody intimidates the hulking Clarke, who has both the length and the demeanor to mix it up with the young master.

"I would love it," said Clarke, when asked about the potential of a Sunday showdown with Woods. "I get on really well with Tiger. We are good friends. We joke a bit, mess around a bit. And if that were the case, if I gave myself the chance to compete against the world's No. 1, that would be fantastic. But there is a long way to go yet."

Sure, that's what everybody said after Woods opened the U.S. Open with a 65 and the British Open with a 67. The entire world is familiar with how those field-flattening weekends played out. With that history in mind, another prolonged victory parade appears likely..

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