CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Bill Haas made easy birdies on the par 5s and matched the tournament record for the lowest opening round with an 8-under 64 and a two-shot lead at the Wells Fargo Championship on Thursday.
It was his best score in 22 rounds at Quail Hollow on the PGA Tour, and way better than two dozen more rounds he played as a kid when he was tagging along with his father, Jay Haas, on the special trips they made to the course.
“I’ve got good feelings around this place,” Haas said.
He had a two-shot lead over Jonathan Byrd and Lucas Glover, who played in the chill of the morning with a north wind that is uncommon for this tournament.
Ultimately, the afternoon turned out to be perfect – much like Haas and his round.
He did have a few key par saves, such as the 10-foot putt he made at the turn on the 18th hole. The key for Haas, though, was getting off to a good start on the slightly tougher back nine, and knowing he could afford to make a few mistakes.
Defending champion Rory McIlroy made some errors early, and he never quite caught up. In his first trip back to America after his Sunday collapse in the Masters, the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland opened with a 75.
“The story of the day for me is I really didn’t hit it very well, which is unlike me,” McIlroy said. “It’d be the strength of my game and today I just wasn’t striking it well. My timing was off just a little bit.”
Pat Perez and Lucas Glover were at 67, while Rickie Fowler overcame a rugged start – two bogeys on his opening three holes – to lead a group at 68 that included Vijay Singh and Stuart Appleby.
Phil Mickelson, in his first event since the Masters, hit two balls in the water on par 5s and scrambled for par each time. The first one was critical. He already was 1 over for the tournament through six holes when he came out of the pine straw and into the pond at No. 7. He holed a 12-foot par putt, then made birdie on the next four holes.
He wound up with a 69, along with Padraig Harrington.
“I hadn’t played in a few weeks, and to shoot under par was a good start,” Mickelson said. “It could have been a lot better, could have been a lot worse. I’ll certainly take it.”
The cold air made Quail Hollow play even longer in the morning, and it was particularly tough on the guys who don’t blast it. Toms fits into that category, which explains why he had to hit fairway metals for his second shot on three par 4s. The good news is he made par on all of them, and threw in seven birdies for a 66.
“It was cold this morning, and we were all out there with our jackets and sweaters on and playing these long par 4s,” Toms said. “If I can shoot 3 under on the front nine, as long as it played, I’ll take that any day.”
Toms won the first edition of this tournament in 2003.
Byrd rarely plays well here. Except for a tie for fifth a few years ago, he missed the cut in his other five appearances. He almost thought about skipping the Wells Fargo Championship, except that it’s close to his South Carolina roots.
“It’s pretty odd,” said Byrd, who opened the year with a playoff win at Kapalua. “If it wasn’t close to home, I might start saying, ‘I just don’t play well there, I need to go home.’ But my family is close to home here in Columbia, South Carolina, and it’s not far from Clemson. They just knock it out of the park at this golf tournament, and it’s a tournament I can’t miss.”
Haas wouldn’t miss it, either – not now, certainly not as a kid. He grew up in Greenville, S.C., although his father was a member and they often made the 90-mile drive to Quail Hollow.
“My dad would say, ‘Let’s go play Quail tomorrow.’ It was a bigger deal than just playing at home,” he said.
Haas figures he played some 30 rounds before turning pro. He also has good memories of the times he played the tournament with his father, older brother (Jay Jr.) and his uncle (Jerry Haas).
Even so, nothing compares to playing and making so many birdies.
Haas opened his round with a 3-wood onto the 10th green for a two-putt birdie, and a 7-iron to 15 feet on the 12th, which played as the second-toughest hole in the opening round. Then came a 30-foot birdie on the 14th, and an easy up-and-down from the front bunker on the par-5 15th for a birdie.
He knew birdie chances awaited on the front with two par 5s, and he made birdie there, too.
Haas tinkered with a belly putter at Hilton Head a few weeks ago because the greens are flat. He was back to a conventional putter on the contoured greens of Quail Hollow, and wound up making his share of them.
“Putted well,” he said, “which leads to everything.”