Brendan Steele
Brendan Steele tees off on the third hole during the final round of the 93rd PGA Championship golf tournament at the Atlanta Athletic Club in Johns Creek, Georgia, August 14, 2011. Reuters

PGA Tour rookie Brendan Steele and fellow Americans Briny Baird, Garrett Willis and Matt Bettencourt stole the limelight from Tiger Woods by charging into a tie for the Open lead on Thursday.

While Woods struggled on the greens in mainly wet and cold conditions at CordeValle Golf Club in his first tournament appearance in almost two months, Steele and company fired four-under-par 67s to set the first-round pace.

Steele, who clinched his maiden PGA Tour title at the Texas Open in April, covered the back nine in a sizzling five-under 31 to join Baird, Willis and Bettencourt at the top of the leaderboard on a saturated course playing ultra-long.

It was a little cold and rainy this morning, and the ball wasn't carrying very far, the 28-year-old Steele told reporters after recording five birdies and a lone bogey.

It was a little tough to get going early on but, once I made the turn, things started to click. I caught some nice weather on the back nine.

Journeyman Baird, who has to win a PGA Tour title after 12 full seasons on the U.S. circuit, was delighted to be in contention after holing a 20-foot par putt at the last.

That was nice, the 39-year-old said with a smile. You hate to end on a sour note. The conditions out there weren't easy.

Compared to last week, the ball is going nowhere, Baird added, referring to the Las Vegas Open. If you normally hit an eight-iron 160 yards, it's going 145 here. A huge difference.

Australians Steve Bowditch, Matt Jones, Rod Pampling and Aron Price, Canadian Chris Baryla and American Troy Matteson opened with 68s while three-times major winner Ernie Els was among a group of 14 players on 69.

British world number 20 Paul Casey, the highest-ranked player in the field, briefly held a share of the lead before dropping four shots in the last six holes to card a 70.


Former world number one Woods, who has not competed since he missed the cut at the PGA Championship in August, struggled badly with his putting on the way to an erratic 73.

That's probably one of the worst putting rounds I've ever had, he said after totaling 27 putts and reaching just nine greens in regulation. Whatever momentum I could have gotten by hitting good shots, I just missed putts.

I am just playing to be competitive and to win a golf tournament, added Woods, who is taking part in a Fall Series event for the first time at the urging of Presidents Cup captain Fred Couples.

It's not about (Presidents Cup) validation. I'm six (shots) back and I have to put in a good round tomorrow.

After making an encouraging start under overcast skies with a birdie at the par-four first, Woods bogeyed the second and third to reach the turn in one-over 36.

He squandered a golden opportunity at the par-three 11th where his birdie putt from four feet slid past the right edge of the cup before he made a total mess of the par-five 12th.

As the rain began to intensify, he double-bogeyed the hole after driving into the left rough and pulling his second shot into a hazard before taking a penalty drop.

Though he birdied the par-five 15th after ending up just short of the green in two shots, he failed to make up any further ground over the closing stretch.

Conditions were tricky for scoring, however, on the undulating par-71 layout which played much longer than its official 7,368 yards because of the wet weather.

The average first-round score was 71.864 and former major winners Angel Cabrera, Steve Elkington and Rich Beem were among those who struggled on the way to matching 74s.