Durant, Goosen Lead at Tour Championship

Friday, November 3rd 2006, 6:25 am
By: News On 6

ATLANTA (AP) _ Joe Durant finished his final day of practice at the Tour Championship when it started to sink in that he was among the elite on the PGA Tour for the 2006 season.

``I was sitting here look out over the lake thinking, 'I can't believe I'm here this week after where I stood halfway through the year,''' Durant said. ``It's been a great two months for me.''

Two months ago, Durant was in danger of losing his PGA Tour card. Worse yet, he came back to his hotel room in Milwaukee to learn he had been robbed of his briefcase, laptop and other electronic goods. He barely made the cut that week, but it triggered an urgency that brought him all the way to East Lake for the tour's version of the All-Star Game.

It got even better on Thursday.

He opened with four birdies on his first seven holes, including a chip-in on the sixth green after he thought he had gone into the water. It carried him to a 2-under 68, tied with Retief Goosen after the first round.

Durant had four top 10s coming into the Tour Championship, including a victory at Disney that got him into the top 30 on the money list and a tie for fourth last week in Innisbrook that enabled him to stay there.

Considering the conditions, the 68 felt much lower.

For those who think the Tour Championship is an end-of-the-year party, it felt more like a final exam.

Temperatures plunged overnight, and the north wind made it difficult to keep tee shots in the fairway when it was going sideways, or to get the ball close to the hole. The result was a test the players haven't seen since the third week in June at the U.S. Open.

Only eight players in the 27-man field managed to break par.

The leading score was the highest at East Lake since the Tour Championship started coming here in 1998, and the average score of 72.07 was the highest in 21 previous rounds at this course where Bobby Jones learned to play.

``You just felt like you had to hang in there,'' said Goosen, who missed a 4-foot par putt on the 18th hole. ``It's tough out there for everybody today.''

Not for Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.

The two biggest stars on the PGA Tour decided to take this week off _ Mickelson also skipped last year _ taking some shine off the final tournament of the year. Look at all the fun they missed.

``I've got to be happy with my score,'' Ernie Els said, despite not getting into red numbers all day and shooting 71.

Jim Furyk took a huge step toward winning the Vardon Trophy, recovering from a nasty patch in his back nine to birdie two of the last four holes for a 69, leaving him tied with 2002 winner Vijay Singh.

``It was playable, but I also wasn't able to eliminate the mistakes,'' Furyk said. ``The blustery conditions, the cool, windy weather, it made those bogey easy to find out there. I didn't play probably as consistent as I would have liked to, but I made a bunch of birdies to cover up those mistakes and had a good day.''

Singh had a chance to reach 3 under until missing a 6-foot birdie putt on the 16th _ no one made birdie there in the first round _ and three-putted from 40 feet to make bogey on the 17th.

``I played pretty well,'' Singh said. ``It's unfortunate about a few putts, but I'll take in these conditions.''

Also at 69 were Adam Scott, Tom Pernice Jr., Stewart Cink and Stuart Appleby, who won the season-opening Mercedes Championships and would love to end the year the same way.

J.J. Henry didn't make a par until the sixth hole and had only five on the day. He countered with six birdies and seven bogeys, and was wiped out when he finished, calling it the toughest test he had faced since the U.S. Open.

K.J. Choi didn't go quite that far.

``You make a mistake here, it cost you one shot,'' Choi said. ``At the U.S. Open, it cost you three shots.''

It cost Davis Love III plenty.

He started by hitting into the bunkers and getting a plugged lie on the first three holes, and it never got any better. Love was the only player who failed to make a birdie, and his 12-over 82 was his highest score to par in 21 years as a pro.

``If I had hit it on the green, I wouldn't have had those lies,'' Love reasoned.

True, but he might have saved his fragile back by not having to do gardening on the greens. The wind covered the greens with leaves and pine needles. Els and Choi got put on the clock on the seventh hole after spending some five minutes clearing the line of their putts, and at one point, Els motioned to caddie Malcolm Mason to help him out.

Choi finally finished, and when he stood over his putt, more leaves had blown in his way.

``We need a damn gardener out there,'' Els said. ``It's going to be a problem all week because the leaves are coming off now with this wind. If you hit it 30 feet, you've got a lot of leaves. Even if you stood over your second shot in the fairway, you could just see the leaves coming. Either you wait for it you don't. It kind of bothers you a little bit.''

Even so, this is one time Els wasn't bothered by a round over par.

He needs a victory this week to finish his PGA Tour season with a victory and earn a ticket to Kapalua, his favorite place to start the year. He never was better than even par the entire round, but he didn't stay too far way from the lead.