- Associated Press - Thursday, August 11, 2011

JOHNS CREEK, GA. (AP) - Several PGA professionals gathered around the tee on the first hole at Atlanta Athletic Club, breaking into applause when one of their own hit the fairway with his opening tee shot Thursday.

About that time, Tiger Woods was heading to the putting green to begin warming up for the PGA Championship, still seeking that 15th major title.

Under a rising sun and cloudless blue sky, Craig Stevens of Dallas teed off in the opening group at No. 1. Stevens was one of 20 club pros in the field for the final major the year. Over at the 10th, Ryan Moore led another threesome beginning its day on the back side.

Two hours later, Woods teed off in a group that included U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III and 2008 PGA champion Padraig Harrington of Ireland.

Woods, who hasn’t won a major title since the U.S. Open more than three years ago, missed the past two majors while letting injuries in his left leg properly heal.

Minor damage from a mowing accident on the 17th green had been repaired, although the brown edges of the new sod were visible. The PGA of America ruled the damaged area would be treated as ground under repair.

Paul Goydos settled in for what could be a long day, with no guarantee that he would even get to play.

Goydos has been the first alternate since the start of the week, and three days later, nothing had changed.

“I’ve got to stay on the tee,” Goydos said. “There’s like a blue line, and I’ve got to be inside the blue line, standing there like I’m a vulture. I told them they should give me a black hood and a scarlet letter. It’s an uncomfortable position that I earned.”

Goydos, a two-time winner on the PGA Tour who shot a 59 last year at the John Deere Classic, was at least allowed to play practice rounds.

The PGA Championship has the strongest field in golf, so strong that even the alternates can win, as John Daly did in 1991 at Crooked Stick. Goydos said he was not bothered that 57-year-old Jerry Pate, playing in only his second major in the past 20 years, asked the PGA for a special invitation even though he knows he can’t contend.

Pate wanted this to be his farewell to major championship golf because he won his only major _ the U.S. Open in 1976 _ at Atlanta Athletic Club and was born in Georgia.

“I don’t think he’s taking a spot,” Goydos said. “Arguably, you could say the way I’ve been playing, maybe I’d be taking up a spot. My record in the majors is nothing to write home about.

“For a player to complain, that’s petty at best.”

Dustin Johnson took a similar approach last year, when a two-stroke penalty on the 72nd hole kept him out of a playoff with Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson.

Kaymer went on to beat Watson, while Johnson is forever linked to one of the greatest mental blunders or all-time rip jobs, depending on your point of view. He had to take the penalty for grounding his club in a patch of dirt that only vaguely resembled a bunker.

Johnson still isn’t sure that’s what it was.

“It was only about this big around,” he said Wednesday, holding out his arms in the shape of a small circle. “There was grass and beer cans and cups in there. It had no definition at all.”

It qualified as a bunker under local rules, which Johnson didn’t bother to read. So, he dutifully erased the number on his card and wrote in one that was two strokes higher.

Kaymer comes in as the defending champion, playing in an afternoon group that included two other former PGA winners, Y.E. Yang and Shaun Micheel.

Johnson is still chasing his first big win, but he’s never really griped about the cards he was dealt.

Heck, he still blames himself for driving the ball so far right that he wound up in a bunker that didn’t look like one. He had a one-stroke lead, his breakthrough win just a par away. He knows he should’ve been more conservative off the tee, done what it took to stay in the fairway.

“I never should’ve hit it over there,” Johnson said.

In defeat, Johnson earned plenty of respect for the way he stoically handled the penalty.

“I don’t ever get too angry or too mad, especially when it was my fault,” Johnson said. “Still, the more times I look at it, the more I think it’s not even a bunker. But things happen. Rules are rules. I broke one, and I got a penalty.”

Coming off a three-month layoff, Woods had a ragged return last week at Firestone, finishing 18 strokes behind winner Adam Scott. Rubbing salt in the wound, Scott’s caddie was Steve Williams, who was recently fired by Woods after a long partnership.

Williams was giddy over Scott’s victory, calling it the greatest of his career _ even when taking into account the 13 majors titles he was part of while on Woods‘ bag. The caddie said he had remained loyal to Woods through all his problems, only to get dumped for no apparent reason.

Woods said he sent Williams “a nice text” congratulating him on the victory, and was surprised at the way he lashed out to the media. There are no regrets about the decision to fire his longtime caddie.

“Sometimes we all need changes,” Woods said. “I was at peace with it. It was a decision and a direction I wanted to go, and that’s it.”

While Woods has slipped to 30th in the world rankings and looked far too erratic at Firestone to have any real chance in the final major of the year, given Atlanta’s tight fairways, plentiful water and daunting length, his expectations haven’t changed a bit from the glory days.

“A ‘W,’” he said, nodding his head. “Do you want me to elaborate? A nice ‘W.’”


Follow Paul Newberry at https://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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