Originally created 08/11/00

Austin takes Buick Open lead



GRAND BLANC, Mich. -- For one day, Woody Austin discovered what it's like to putt as well as Tiger Woods. The result was a 9-under-par 63 that left him stunned, and also leading after the first round of the Buick Open.

Austin, whose only PGA Tour victory came in the '95 Buick Open, took only 22 putts and made 11 birdies on the pure greens of Warwick Hills Country Club to take a two-stroke lead over Paul Azinger.

"My game is pretty bad," Austin said. "I needed some positive input on my game, and this was very important."

Woods, in his first tournament since completing the Grand Slam, three-putted twice -- once from 12 feet -- but still managed to walk off the course with a 2-under 70.

Masters champion Vijay Singh and Joe Ozaki were at 66. Hal Sutton and Billy Mayfair were in the group at 67.

For Woods, it was his 24th consecutive round at par or better, dating to a 3-over 73 in the first round of the Byron Nelson Classic in May.

"I broke 80, which is good for me," Woods joked.

Golf has been a cruel joke for Austin, the PGA Tour rookie of the year in '95 who has struggled to keep his card ever since his two-year exemption from winning the Buick Open that year expired.

His best television exposure occurred a couple of years ago when he was caught banging the shaft of his putter against his forehead in rapid succession. Small wonder. Austin has never finished higher than 138th in putting.

"People don't know what it means to putt bad," he said. "To putt bad is to putt bad all the time. It sure would be nice one year to be 80th -- that's still 70 spots better than I've been."

His strength his ball-striking, and he often wondered what it would be like if the cup looked like a manhole instead of an ant hole. He found out Thursday.

The 63 matched his lowest round on the PGA Tour, a stretch of 446 rounds dating to the first round of the '95 Buick Open.

Starting his round on No. 10 in the afternoon, Austin birdied the first five holes and kept his momentum with a 12-foot par save out of the bunker. On his 15th hole, he sank a 25-footer for birdie and the light came on.

"That's when I felt like I couldn't miss," he said.

Azinger has fond memories of Warwick Hills. He has never won the Buick Open, but this is where he made his return to the PGA Tour in 1994 after he was diagnosed with lymphoma.

"Welcome back to golf," the announcer said that day on the first tee.

Six years later, Azinger is slowly making his way back to the days when he was a perennial winner on tour, which culminated with his victory in the '93 PGA Championship. He finally won again this year, a wire-to-wire victory in Honolulu, and would have contended in the U.S. Open and British Open if Woods had taken those weeks off.

"The hard thing for me was to play four years with no hope," Azinger said. "That's all changed. I go to every tournament thinking the way I used to think. I'm going to every tournament with a lot of confidence."

Confidence is never in short supply when the birdie putts are essentially tap-ins, which is what Azinger had in his favor when every birdie came inside about 8 feet -- and he made eagle by chipping in from 35 yards.

Loren Roberts and Casey Martin were among those at 68, while Phil Mickelson was in a large group at 69. On a breezy, mostly sunny day, 91 out of 155 players were at par or better.

Woods has finished out of the top 20 only twice in his last 31 tournaments, both times in his first event after winning a major.

The Buick Open seemed to be heading that direction as he played for the first time since his record-setting performance in the British Open. Despite a birdie-birdie start, Woods started showing signs of rust and then came unraveled in the middle of his round.

"I did make a move," he said. "Only it was the wrong way."

He pulled a 4-iron into the trees on the par-3 8th, leaving him 30 yards short of the green and blocked by a 25-foot oak tree. He hit a flop shot over the tree, but 40 feet below the hole, and then three-putted for double-bogey.

Two holes later, he three-putted from 12 feet to make bogey, lipping out from 18 inches. And while his tee shot on the par-3 11th hit the flag, he still missed the 8-footer for birdie, was 2 over and in danger of falling far behind.

Tiger in trouble?

Not so fast. He was pin-high on the 345-yard 12th, but left of the green some 40 yards with a 30-foot pine right in his way. He hit another flop shot onto the green, and again hit his putt too hard. This one, however, hit the back of the cup and dropped for birdie.

He followed that with eagle putts on the next two holes -- a two-putt from 35 feet on the par-5 13th, and a two-putt from 40 feet after hitting driver to the 322-yard 14th. Woods added another birdie with a nice bunker shot on the par-5 16th.

"Granted, I was 2 over through 10," he said. "But I thought, `Just hang around a little bit and it will turn out all right."'

It turned out even better for Austin.