Tiger set for early charge at PGA

Photo: AFP

Tiger Woods, coming off a Masters victory that snapped an 11-year major win drought, prepared to launch an early bid for his 16th major title as the 101st PGA Championship began Thursday.

The 43-year-old American superstar's electrifying triumph last month at Augusta National has made him the focus of attention at formidable Bethpage Black, the same course where Woods won the 2002 US Open.

"I feel great. I'm excited to get out there," Woods said. "This is going to be a long week the way the golf course is set up and potentially could play. This could be a hell of a championship."

A victory would match Woods with Sam Snead for the all-time US PGA win record at 82 and move him two shy of the all-time major win record of 18 set by Jack Nicklaus - as well as put Woods halfway to a calendar Grand Slam for the first time since 2002.

American Rob Labritz hit the opening shot off the first tee in cool and sunny conditions at the first PGA Championship played in May since 1949, the event moving from August this year in a revamp of the global golf schedule.

Sixth-ranked Woods starts off the 10th tee at 8:24 a.m. (1224 GMT) alongside defending champion and two-time US Open winner Brooks Koepka and reigning British Open champion Francesco Molinari of Italy.

"I'm just looking forward to playing with him. It'll be interesting," Koepka said of Woods. "We really haven't been paired together too much, especially over the last couple years."

Koepka held off Woods to win last year's PGA at Bellerive before Woods turned the tables at the Masters.

"It was great to see him win," Koepka said. "I was a little bit disappointed. I felt like I let it slip a little bit. But at the same time, that's what our sport needed. We needed him to win a major."

Molinari denied Woods last year to win the Claret Jug at Carnoustie.

"When I started I wasn't even dreaming of playing against Tiger," Molinari said. "I feel lucky enough to have played with him many times now in many important moments."

Drives, stamina are key

Finding the fairways will be crucial over the 7,549-yard, par-70 layout as sloping greens firm up from earlier rain.

"In order to win this one, driving is going to be at the forefront," Woods said. "You've got to hit it not only straight but you've got to hit it far."

Woods, nagged for years by back pain before 2017 spinal fusion surgery, has not played competitively since the Masters, making this only the sixth time in his career he has played back-to-back majors.

He skipped a planned nine-hole practice round Wednesday for rest, having done a five-hour in-depth tour of the course last week and played nine holes early Monday.

"There's definitely going to be a component to stamina as the week goes on," Woods said. "Four days over a tough championship that is mentally and physically taxing takes its toll."

Tiger eyes number one

Woods could become world number one for the first time since March 2013 by winning. He would need top-ranked Dustin Johnson to finish worse than solo 11th and neither Koepka or world number two Justin Rose of England to finishing second alone.

England's Rose, third-ranked Koepka and fourth-ranked Rory McIlroy could all overtake Johnson with a victory.

Taking a fifth Wanamaker Trophy would match Woods for the career PGA record with Nicklaus and Walter Hagen.

Woods could become the first golfer since Nicklaus in 1975 to win the Masters and PGA Championship in the same year.

Woods won the Masters and US Open in 2002 when they were the year's first two majors, a feat matched by Jordan Spieth in 2015.

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