- The Washington Times - Friday, July 3, 2009

Defending champion Anthony Kim opened play Thursday by tossing down a Lancelot-worthy gauntlet in the form of a course-record 62. AT&T National host and headliner Tiger Woods finished it, calmly answering Kim’s challenge with a sweat-free 64 to produce an opening-round leader board dominated by the event’s most titanic talents.

“I hit the ball really well and made some nice putts, two bombs out there [Nos. 2 and 12],” said Woods, who overwhelmed a lone bogey blemish on Old Blue’s prodigious 11th hole with seven birdies, his best day with the putter since his first post-op victory at Bay Hill. “Overall, it was a pretty good day.”

The world No. 1 continued his sharp play from tee to green, hitting 12 of 14 fairways and 15 greens while taking advantage of the soft scoring conditions.

On Tuesday, Woods said he hoped this week’s event would feel somewhat like a primer for the 2011 U.S. Open. He ordered the rough grown longer than the PGA Tour norm, the fairways pinched and the greens groomed for fast conditions. But a storm dumped a half-inch of rain on the course overnight, turning the 7,255-yard, par-70 layout into a sodden dartboard.

“Is it the way I wanted it? No, just because it rained,” said Woods, who said he prefers a grinding test to a standard PGA Tour birdie-fest. “If we get no more rain and this place starts drying out a little bit, we can get these [greens] up to speed.”

Given his wanton, flag-seeking approach, Kim probably hopes Congressional Country Club’s Blue Course stays soft and toothless.

“I guess I just can’t help myself,” Kim said of his uber-aggressive style. “To be perfectly honest, I hit quality golf shots and made putts from 10 to 15 feet today. I didn’t hit it two feet on every hole and tap it in. I played more to the middle of greens, and if I missed it, I missed to the fat side.”

The 24-year-old didn’t miss much during his 62, which bested by one the course record held by Matt Gogel (2005 Booz Allen), Tom Pernice (2008 AT&T) and Peter Lonard (2008 AT&T). Kim hit 17 greens during his bogey-free opening round, and six of his eight birdie putts came from inside 14 feet.

All in all, it was a bit of a surprise, given that Kim has suffered through an injury-riddled season that includes only one top-10 finish. But Kim showed signs of emerging from hibernation in his previous two starts, following a strong showing at the U.S. Open (tie for 16th) with a tie for 11th at the Travelers Championship last week that featured his most consistent play of the season (66-66-67-67).

With the latest of his injury issues - a sore left thumb - seemingly behind him, Kim parlayed soft conditions into his best round of the season.

“I love coming back to a course I have good feelings about, and obviously playing well here last year helped. But this course does fit my eye,” he said. “I’m finally getting to that point where I feel like I’m going to be able to win every time I tee it up.”

Woods always feels like that. And the possibility of a weekend duel between Kim and the player he grew up idolizing is tantalizingly delicious.

“Today we both played well,” Woods said. “But we have a long way to go to put ourselves in a position to have a head-to-head battle.”

And Kim probably has a long way to go before he can legitimately share Tiger’s marquee. Nobody questions Kim’s gifts. But for all the hype, Kim’s resume includes just two 2008 victories countered by a season-long 2009 slump. Kim could represent the future of the sport, but Woods and his 14 major titles are its recent past and present.

“He has the talent to do it,” Woods said of Kim. “It’s just a matter of him working hard and getting the experience and getting up there in position a lot of times and beginning to understand how to do it. That just takes time. He’s still very young.”

Perhaps golf will get to witness the next step in that development this week as master and pupil swap shots in Congressional’s classroom.

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