Molinari shares clubhouse lead

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Francesco Molinari and Bubba Watson were the clubhouse leaders after day one at weather-hit Whistling Straits.

Italian Francesco Molinari is another step closer to a Ryder Cup debut after taking a share of the clubhouse lead on the opening day of the USPGA Championship – the final major of the golfing year – at Whistling Straits on Thursday.
After a fog delay of more than three hours, Molinari’s four-under-par 68 put him alongside left-hander Bubba Watson, the big-hitter very much on United States captain Corey Pavin’s radar for October’s match at Celtic Manor.
When play was called off because of fading light just before 8pm local time, South African Ernie Els and Americans Matt Kuchar and Nick Watney were on the same mark entering the closing stretch – with Northern Irishman Darren Clarke and England’s Simon Khan among those only one behind after 13 and seven respectively.
Clarke is making his return to the venue where he led six years ago after a course-record 65, while Khan, of course, won Europe’s PGA Championship at Wentworth in May.
Unlike last week’s world championship, meanwhile, Tiger Woods is in touch with all the leaders and seemingly on the comeback trail.
An unbelievable joint 78th out of 80 in Akron – and 18 over par in the process – Woods posted a one-under-par 71 on a day that also saw Ireland’s Padraig Harrington crash to a 75 and Spain’s out-of-sorts Sergio Garcia to a 78 that effectively ends his Ryder Cup career for the time being.
Woods raised hopes of a stunning turnaround in his fortunes when he birdied three of his first four holes and shared the lead.
Dropping back to level par with bogeys on the 15th – his sixth – the long second and short seventh was a big disappointment, but he raised his morale again with a closing birdie.
Woods commented: “I hit the ball pretty good and I felt like I had control – my trajectory was nice and I’ve not had in a while.
“I just need to keep improving every day.”
He certainly felt far better about things than Harrington, who looks likely now to require one of Colin Montgomerie’s three wild cards.
“I was very confident going out, but was a little bit too aggressive,” said the Dubliner, who now concedes that in terms of the Ryder Cup he made some mistakes with his schedule earlier in the season.
“But I’m still trying to win the tournament. Eight under won here last time (that was Vijay Singh and he finished with a 76) and I don’t see why it won’t be again – but the cut will be an issue tomorrow.”
Harrington’s biggest error came on the short 17th, his eighth, where he pulled a four iron onto the rocks by the water and double-bogeyed.
Molinari, currently eighth on the points table, birdied three of his last five holes to catch Watson and said: “I try not to think about the Ryder Cup.
“I was playing well in practice, so I just said to myself ‘try to focus on doing as good as you can in this tournament and then see what happens’.”
One behind in the clubhouse are Australian Jason Day and American duo Charles Howell and Ryan Moore after three-under-par 69s. Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano is on the same mark with two to play along with Khan and 41-year-old Clarke, who had a hat-trick of birdies from the ninth – the last of them after an expert chip-and-run to two feet.
Scot Martin Laird is one further back and compatriot Stephen Gallacher shot 71, while Paul Casey, Ian Poulter and Luke Donald handed in 72s. Casey chipped in twice, but both were for pars, while Poulter recovered from a triple-bogey seven on the 15th, his sixth.
The later starters included Montgomerie, who had received a vote of confidence from players and from the European Tour after the spotlight had been put on his private life for the second time this year.
Richard Hills, Europe’s Ryder Cup director, said: “We have absolute confidence in Colin as Europe’s captain and we look forward to him standing on the first tee at Celtic Manor when the 2010 Ryder Cup starts exactly 50 days from now.”
Montgomerie, doubtless cheered by such support at a difficult time, even went to one under with a birdie on the 13th, his fourth.
But he then finished the back nine with three successive bogeys and dropped further shots at the first and fourth to be four over.
Irish Open champion Ross Fisher, sixth in the cup standings, struggled even more, turning in a five-over 41, but Rory McIlroy came back from three over after four with four birdies in the next seven.
Fellow Ulsterman and US Open champion Graeme McDowell managed only 38 going out, but Ireland’s Shane Lowry is two under starting the front nine and Justin Rose level par after 10.
Sick Henrik Stenson, the only player worse than Woods a week ago, started double bogey, triple bogey and was seven over after 12. His only battle, it seems, is to avoid another last place.
TOP 20 LEADERBOARD
-4 Bubba Watson (USA) 68
-4 Francesco Molinarin (Ita) 68
-4 Ernie Els (RSA) – after 14 holes
-4 Matt Kuchar (USA) – after 14 holes
-4 Nick Watney (USA) – after 11 holes
-3 Jason Day (Aus) 69
-3 Ryan Moore (USA) 69
-3 Charles Howell III (USA) 69
-3 Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano (Esp) – after 16 holes
-3 Darren Clarke (NIr) – after 13 holes
-3 Simon Khan (Eng) – after 7 holes
-2 Jim Furyk (USA) 70
-2 Kyung-tae Kim (Kor) 70
-2 Martin Laird (Sco) 70
-2 John Merrick (USA) 70
-2 Michael Sim (Aus) 70
-2 Thongchai Jaidee (Tha) 70
-2 Gregory Bourdy (Fra) 70
-2 Tim Thelen (USA) – after 16 holes
-2 Shaun Micheel (USA) after 10 holes
-2 Peter Hanson (Swe) after 10 holes
-2 Angel Cabrera (Arg) after 10 holes
-2 Shane Lowry (Ire) after 9 holes

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