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Bart Bryant

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Unread 18-03-2006, 05:09 AM   #1
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Bart Bryant

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ORLANDO, Florida (AP) - Bart Bryant already won Jack Nicklaus' tournament. Opening with a 6-under 66 in the Bay Hill Invitational on Thursday 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 starts.

Ernie Els missed four months toward the end of last year because of knee surgery, and his return to the U.S. PGA Tour was slowed by tentative play and sloppy starts.

He found another gear on a sunny, balmy day at Bay Hill Club by conquering the par-5 sixth hole with a 3-wood over the water and a bending, 50-foot eagle putt on the sixth.

Els wound up with a 67 and had company.

He was joined by former British Open champion Ben Curtis, former Bay Hill winner Chad Campbell, Lucas Glover and Jason Gore.

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 at 70.

Despite the fear of 3{-inch (9-centimeter) 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 60s.

"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 northern 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 Nicklaus' Memorial tournament, 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 the winner.

"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 two weeks ago, he was part of that star-laden leaderboard.

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 bogey.

"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 turn.

"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.''

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