ORLANDO, Fla. -- Bart Bryant already won Jack Nicklaus'
tournament. Opening with a 6-under 66 on Thursday in the Bay Hill
Invitational allowed him to think about adding Arnold Palmer's
trophy to his collection.
Bryant surged to the top of a crowded leaderboard with a 3-iron
into 12 feet for eagle on the 16th hole and a string of good iron
shots for a share of the lead with Dean Wilson.
It was the first time Bryant broke par in the first round this
year, a sign that he is finally feeling comfortable after having
surgery on his right knee at the end of his stellar 2005 season.
He wasn't alone in either category -- knee surgeries and good
Ernie Els missed four months toward the end of last year because
of knee surgery, and his return to the PGA Tour was slowed by
tentative play and sloppy starts. He found another gear on a sunny,
balmy day at Bay Hill by conquering the par-5 sixth hole with a
3-wood over the water and a bending, 50-foot eagle putt on the
Tiger Woods was poised to join them, despite not feeling the
least bit comfortable over his tee shots, approaches to the green
or his putting. He was at 4 under until back-to-back bogeys put him
Despite the fear of 3½-inch rough, conditions were dry and
players were able to advance the ball from the thick grass close
enough to green to get par or better. It still was tough enough
that no one went lower than 66, although 22 players shot in the
"It looks like 4- and 5-unders are a dime a dozen today. I was
fortunate enough to be one of those guys who went a shot lower than
the other guys," Bryant said.
Bryant was nowhere near that earlier in the year, and for good
reason. He wasn't able to play at all during the offseason -- even
riding in a cart when he toured Augusta National late last year --
and only last week when he was at home did he feel his knee getting
stronger, and his shots going a little farther.
He would love to get back to his form last year, when he made
par from the hazard on the 18th hole at Muirfield Village to win
the Memorial, then blew away the elite field at East Lake to win
the Tour Championship.
One of his biggest thrills was having Nicklaus standing beyond
the 18th green at the Memorial to congratulate him. Bryant was told
that Palmer tends to hang around the 18th green at Bay Hill to meet
"I'm telling you, if I could somehow figure out a way to win
this tournament some year, and then go win the Byron Nelson,
shaking all three of those guys' hands coming off the 18th green
being a winner, that would be pretty cool. That would be some kind
of story to tell your grandkids."
There's a long way to go between one round and a handshake from
Palmer, and loads of players in the mix.
Wilson's goal is to stay there.
It has taken Wilson some time to get comfortable playing with
some of the biggest stars, learning along the way. It helped
spending two days before 20,000 people at the 2003 Colonial when he
was paired with Annika Sorenstam, and even though he faltered in
the final round at Doral, he was part of that star-laden
Wilson is off to his best start -- still no wins, but keeping his
name closer to the top of the leaderboard instead of the cut line.
"Every year I seem to get a little more comfortable with what's
going on," Wilson said.
Woods never looked comfortable, especially on the 18th hole (his
ninth of the first round). His approach was just over the green in
the first cut, and he stubbed a chip that went 4 feet and led to
"I had a hard time making a decision what I was going to do,"
Woods said. "Am I going to throw it up in the air? No, I'll let it
roll. No, I'll throw it up. No, I'll let it roll. Decided to go
with the flub, instead."
Els had a few anxious moments, but recovered brilliantly. From a
plugged lie in the bunker on his 10th hole (No. 1), he got it out
to 12 feet and saved par. Then came the third, where he drove into
the water and had to drop 190 yards from the hole. Els hit 7-iron
to 12 feet and again escaped with par.
Getting through the sixth hole was the key. Els has had plenty
of rounds derailed by the par 5, and he had to wonder if Thursday
would be another when his 3-wood over the water didn't cut back
toward the green. It found land with about 3 yards to spare, and
Els raised both arms when his long eagle putt dropped on the final
"We're not drawing pictures, are we?" Els said, suggesting all
that mattered was a 3 on his card, not how close it came to being a
number much larger. "That's one round under the belt. I think it's
probably my first eagle ever [on that hole], so that was nice."
John Buchna, the longtime caddie for Joey Sindelar, is
walking outside the ropes this week. On the bag is Sindelar's
16-year-old son, Jamison, a sophomore in high school. Sindelar
opened with a 2-under 70, hit balls on the range, then headed over
to Keene's Point so his son could hit balls. ... Jeff Sluman signed
a lifetime deal with Paychex, the payroll and human resource
services company in Rochester, N.Y., whose logo has been on
Sluman's hat since 1986. ... Arnold Palmer's grandson, 18-year-old
Sam Saunders, shot 76.