POTOMAC -- They trudged happily off the course at Avenel yesterday, dripping with sweat, their score cards swimming with birdies. The weather wasn't the only thing that was red-hot for the first round of the $1 million Kemper Open.
How hot and unbothered were they?
Despite a temperature reading of 104 on the driving range at 1 p.m., the low scores reflected the relative ease with which the 6,904-yard Tournament Players Club course was playing. Nearly half of the 156-man field finished under par.
As co-leader Bob Gilder said after a 6-under par 65, "I think the golf course is kind of like a sitting duck."
Gilder, 40, and tour rookie Scott Gump, both of whom had finished their rounds by early afternoon, led a record-setting assault on par. They are one shot ahead of Buddy Gardner, Neal Lancaster, Chip Beck, Howard Twitty, Hal Sutton and Perry Arthur. Seven players, including Greg Norman, are two shots behind.
Of the 76 players under par -- breaking the tournament's opening-round record of 56, set in 1987 -- 44 teed off before noon. Some, including Twitty, Sutton and Norman, played at the peak of the heat.
"It's getting unbearable out there," said Gardner, who was in the first group out on the 10th tee at 7:15 a.m. "The guys in the afternoon are going to have a tough time. But we're going to have the same thing tomorrow, so things will even out."
The way Gilder looks at it, the hotter the better. Despite having suffered from back problems for most of his 16 years on the tour, Gilder had little trouble getting loose in the heat. Nor did he have problems with his putting, which has been a constant nightmare for him.
"Nothing's felt comfortable until today," said Gilder, who one-putted five times and chipped in once, from the fringe at No. 12. "This was the best I've putted in three years."
Gilder got a tip recently from an instructional magazine article written by former Kemper champion Morris Hatalsky. After reading Hatalsky's theories about putting, Gilder put them into practice while playing Sunday near his home in Oregon.
"He says that he never thinks about his stroke," Gilder said of Hatalsky, the tour's top putter over the past decade, who won here three years ago. "He just visualizes how the ball is going to roll in."
It's the latest trick Gilder has tried with a putting stroke that began to go bad just about the time his back had started to feel better. Along with what he described as "a bad attitude," it sent him plummeting on the tour money list.
Once considered among the tour's rising stars, Gilder has been in steady decline since winning three times and finishing sixth in earnings in 1982. He has not won since the 1983 Phoenix Open and is ranked 126th on the money list.
"I was burnt out," said Gilder, whose best finish this season was a 12th-place tie at the Los Angeles Open. "There were times when I didn't want to be out there. It wasn't interesting. It wasn't fun. My game hasn't changed. My attitude had to change. I had to make the game fun again."
Gump, 25, hasn't been playing the tour long enough to have many negative thoughts, but his first five months had begun to wear on him. He has missed the cut six times in 10 tries and hasn't made a paycheck since late March.
"It's been a very strange year," said Gump, a former Middle Atlantic Amateur champion who finished third at qualifying school last fall but has not done better than a tie for 44th in Hawaii. "I played really well in tour school, and I was looking forward to this year. You become a little impatient with yourself."
It wasn't as difficult to stay patient yesterday as it was to stay dry. "I was soaked just hitting balls on the practice tee," said Gardner, who was on the tee a little past 6 a.m. "I don't think you ever get used to it. You just learn how to deal with it."
The relatively short course played even shorter, turning tee shots into moon shots. Lancaster, who came into the Kemper 11th on the tour in driving distance with an average of 270 yards, estimated that "the ball is running 60 yards more off the tee
every time you hit it."
But the weather did take its toll. Some of those with early-afternoon starting times got out quickly, only to fade. Ronnie Black was 6-under through 10 holes but double-bogeyed No. 12 and finished 4-under. Brad Bell was at 4-under 32 at the turn but blew up with a 39 on the back nine.
"In this kind of heat, you can fog out and not really stay focused," said Twitty. "If the heat stays like this, you're going to see some of that."
Cards of the leaders after the first round yesterday in the $800,000 Kemper Open on the 6,867-yard, 36-35-71 Tournament Players Club course at Avenel:
Par out: 453 445 443-36
Gilder out: 453 344 443-34
Gump out: 453 335 343-33
Par in: 434 544 434-3571
Gilder in: 343 444 423-31--65
Gump in: 235 443 434-32--65
: Odds and ends
Best round: 65 (tie) Bob Gilder and Scott Gump.
Worst round: 84 Dirk Schultz.
Best hole: Bob Eastwood eagled the par-4 444-yard 18th hole Gump eagled the par-4 374-yard 10th hole. Nine others eagled par-5s.
Worst hole: quintuple-bogey 9 on 10th, Ed Humenik (first hole h played).
Biggest difference between nines: 10 shots. Mike Donald shot 3 on the front after a 42 on the back.