Nicklaus gives Howell tip

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 30, 2003

DUBLIN, Ohio --Charles Howell III picked up some local knowledge a year ago that provided some much needed insight in Thursday's opening round of the Memorial Tournament.

Howell played a practice round last year with tournament founder and Muirfield Village designer Jack Nicklaus. Buoyed by some of the advice imparted by Nicklaus, Howell shot an 8-under 64 for a one-stroke lead over Kenny Perry.

Howell never forgot the suggestions Nicklaus made.

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''It's amazing how he sees holes and how he would play them,'' said Howell, who played the last 12 holes in 8-under. ''Just some little things, here and there. Going through every single hole, it makes a difference.''

Howell tied the best first-round score in the tournament's 28 years by rolling in a 45-foot birdie putt on the final hole. He still wasn't able to separate himself from a star-studded 104-player field.

Perry, coming off a six-shot win last week at the Colonial, shot a 65 to move to 24-under over his last four rounds. After missing the last month recuperating from elbow and shoulder injuries, John Huston had a 66.

Tiger Woods followed a similar script, shooting a 67 in his first PGA Tour event since the Masters. It was his lowest opening round since a 66 in the Disney Classic last October.

''The greens are so perfect,'' said Woods, in a pack of seven players tied for fourth. ''The wind is not really blowing that hard. It's warm enough that the ball is just flying forever.''

The conditions were ideal for scoring, with warm temperatures and sunny skies until a brief shower hit just after the round was completed. The Memorial has been hampered over the past few years by inclement weather. Not this time, as 56 players shot par or better.

''With the greens relatively soft and without any wind, you're going to have to put the pins in the bunkers to make it any tougher,'' Nicklaus said after failing to post a birdie during a 76.

His son Gary upheld the family name, briefly climbing the leaderboard before closing out a 69.

Howell said he approached the Memorial as a major championship, partly because the course reminds him of Augusta National.

''Well, you start with the caddie uniforms are the exactly the same,'' Howell said. ''The fairways and greens are absolutely perfect. The layout of the golf course has a lot of slopes -- just the whole atmosphere.''

Howell also could bank on some pleasant memories.

He was in dire need of a big paycheck when he arrived at the Memorial two years ago and finished tied for 15th to collect $65,600.

''This place has always been important to me,'' Howell said.

He saved his best for last, rolling in a 12-foot eagle putt at No. 15 and then hitting the long birdie putt on the closing hole that brought the loudest roar of the day from the large gallery ringing the green.

''I was very fortunate to get the speed right,'' Howell said. ''It was perfect enough to drop in. I would have taken a par and left.''

Maintaining the lead may take more magic. A first-round leader has never gone on to win the Memorial.

Perry didn't slack off after setting a tournament-record by going 19-under par last week at Colonial.

''I'm in a little hot streak,'' he said. ''I've had stretches like this before, so I hope I can keep it going and keep those positive thoughts.''

Showing no ill effects from his layoff, Huston spun in a 120-yard sand wedge on the ninth hole for an eagle. He holds the Muirfield Village course record with a 61 in 1991.

Joining Woods at 67 are Retief Goosen, Brad Faxon, Lee Janzen, Adam Scott and Chad Campbell.

Woods said the big hitters still had the upper hand.

''The golf course lends itself to being aggressive off the tee and taking some chances,'' he said. ''With it being so hot and humid out here, some holes you can carry 300 yards with no problem. Look at most of the leaderboard, those are the guys that can bomb it.''

Defending champion Jim Furyk shot a 68 and said he couldn't believe he was actually at the Memorial.

''The weather is nice. It's as nice as it's going to get and there's hardly any wind,'' he said. ''It's still a difficult course but it's in such good shape I could see a guy getting on a roll.''