Woods off to solid start at PGA Champs

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PITTSFORD, N.Y. — Tiger Woods got off to a solid start in his bid to win a 15th major title.

Woods made a couple of early birdies at the PGA Championship on Thursday morning, leaving him three shots off the early lead at venerable Oak Hill.

David Heard of Canada surged to the top of the board with a 5-under score through 16 holes. Jim Furyk was another stroke back, while the group at 3 under included Matt Kuchar, England’s Paul Casey and Matt Jones of Australia.

Robert Garrigus got to 4 under and a share of the lead before a double-bogey at the par-3 sixth hole knocked him back.

Woods began on the back side, making the turn with a 2-under 33. He birdied the par-5 13th hole at Oak Hill, chipping up within inches of the hole for a tap in. Then, at the par-3 15th, he stuck his tee shot about 10 feet away and made the putt. He had a chance to get to 3 under at the second hole, but missed about a 5-footer.

With conditions softened after overnight rain, Hearn started with a bogey at No. 1 but had ripped off six birdies as he approached the end of his round.

Woods hasn’t won a major title since the 2008 U.S. Open — the longest drought of his career. He arrived at Oak Hill ranked No. 1 and coming off his fifth victory of the year, a seven-shot romp at the Bridgestone.

Plenty of golfers were chasing their first major title.

They’ve come to the right place.

From Keegan Bradley to Shaun Micheel, there’s something about the year’s final major that seems to bring out the best in those seeking one of those career-defining victories. Not surprisingly, there’s been plenty of speculation this week about who might break through at this historic course just outside of Rochester.

Dustin Johnson certainly has the game to win a major title. Hunter Mahan has been a perennial contender in the big events. Maybe Lee Westwood will finally break through after coming close again at the British Open.

Over the past quarter century, there’s a better chance of winning No. 1 at the PGA than the other three majors. Sixteen of the last 25 PGA champions fit into that category. A dozen of those are still stuck on one major triumph.

Some were up-and-comers who broke through sooner than expected (Bradley falls into that group). Others were total surprises (none more so than Micheel, though he’s got plenty of company).

Justin Rose, who won the U.S. Open in June, believes the PGA tends to be more wide open because the course setups are closer to a regular tour event than one sees at the other majors.

“I think that gives (the PGA) its own unique position,” Rose said. “Each major has its own identity and its own sort of personality. But I would say this one does relate to a regular event a little more than the others.”

Indeed, the PGA Championship does have a bit of an also-ran feeling compared to the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open. In this country, NFL training camps have opened and the baseball pennant races are starting to heat up, stealing much of the attention from other sports, golf included.

Maybe that helps relieve some of the pressure on less-accomplished players, allowing them to sneak in for a major title against more prominent competitors. Maybe that explains how Y.E. Yang rallied to beat Woods at Hazeltine in 2009 when the world’s No. 1 player had a lead after 54 holes — the only time he’s blown an advantage heading into the final round of a major.

Of course, Oak Hill might not be the easiest place for a major neophyte. The narrow fairways and tricky greens certainly seem set up for a more established winner.

“These traditional-style courses really test patience and strategy,” Masters champion Adam Scott said. “An experienced and mature golfer should have a slight advantage in that.”

Scott was playing in an afternoon group that included the year’s other two major winners, Rose and British Open champ Phil Mickelson.

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