ST. LOUIS -- Craig Stadler's 17th year on the PGA Tour has gone just about the way his skiing vacation went last December.
The 200-pounds-plus Stadler was sliding down a slope at Steamboat Springs, Colo., when his path intersected with a young girl half his size. Guess who got the worst of it?
"I was skiing, I got hit, I got hurt," Stadler recounted. "I was ticked. I think she did a few somersaults, bounced and got up. Kids are made of rubber."
Stadler is made of flesh and blood, and he started off the season nursing an injured shoulder. He played poorly on the West Coast, and even after regaining full health, has been up and down. He has missed cuts, and made cuts, and he has faltered on the weekends and has only three top-10 finishes.
Yesterday, he stayed on his feet in the opening round of the 74th PGA Championship to shoot a 4-under-par 67 at Bellerive Country Club and tie Gene Sauers for the first-round lead.
"The state of my game has been pretty ugly for a while," said Stadler, who ended a seven-year victory drought in 1991 by winning the tour championship. The 1982 Masters is the only major tournament triumph on the resume of the man they call "the Walrus."
"I've played well for a two- to three-week stretch and then have played awful for two, three weeks," Stadler said. "I made the cut for three, four weeks in a row and finish last. The last month, month and a half have not been fun. I kind of hated the way I have been playing, and I have hated golf.
"For some reason, last week I went out and played with my kids a couple of days and worked with the guy [Dick Harmon] who helps me, and that helped."
It must have. Stadler and Sauers broke the course record of 68 set by Kel Nagle and Ray Floyd in the 1965 U.S. Open at the par-71, 7,148-yard layout as unseasonably cool temperatures blessed the opening round. Nevertheless, Bellerive was stingy with low scores; only 11 players broke 70 and only 19 broke par because of its length and thick rough.
British Open champion Nick Faldo, Jay Don Blake and Brian Claar were a shot behind the leaders at 68, and Masters champion Fred Couples, two-time PGA champion Floyd and former Western Open champion Russ Cochran were among a group at 69. Gary Hallberg opened at par 71, as did Australians Greg Norman and Ian Baker-Finch. Five-time champion Jack Nicklaus was at 72, and U.S. Open champion Tom Kite finished at 73.
Defending champion John Daly drew a lot of attention from the sellout crowd of 35,000 but couldn't find the fairways or the holes and was 5-over at 76. Davis Love III, No. 1 on the PGA Tour money list, fared worse with a 77.
Bellerive is a long golf course, with zoysia fairways bordered by killer bluegrass rough. While Stadler held his own on the lengthy par-4s and 5s, the short holes were the key to his round. The 39-year-old from San Diego birdied three of Bellerive's four par-3s and nearly birdied the last.
Stadler, who shot 32-3567, bogeyed the second hole, but he got that shot back on the 165-yard, par-3 third when he hit a 6-iron to within seven feet of the hole and made the putt. He birdied the 195-yard seventh with a 4-iron to within six feet, and then hit a 3-iron from 179 yards to within eight feet on the 13th. He hit a 3-iron to within 16 feet on the 222-yard 16th, but he missed the putt.
"There are pretty sporty par-3s out there, and I hit four good shots," said Stadler, who also birdied two of the three Bellerive par-5s. "I birdied three of them. I thought about it on the 16th tee that it would be nice to birdie all four of them. Sixteen is not too much of a birdie hole. You've got 218 yards to the hole. The key is getting in the fairways and playing the par-3s well."
Stadler had a chance to take the lead alone on the par-5 17th, and he nearly lost his share of it on the 454-yard, par-4 18th. He threw a wedge 10 feet past the hole on the 17th, but missed the putt. He drove into the rough on the home hole, and was forced to make a curly 10-footer for par.
"You've got to be patient," he said. "It doesn't take 4-under or 5- or 6-under every day to win the tournament. It's a relief not to be forced to shoot 5-, 6-under every day. I can shoot even-par or 1-under tomorrow, and probably still be in good condition. I would rather shoot 4-under, and I may."
Sauers missed just three fairways in a round that included six birdies and two bogeys. He saved par with a 20-foot putt on the first after missing the fairway, and then bogeyed the 10th and birdied the 17th from the rough.
"The key is keeping it in the fairway," said Sauers, who has finished second twice this year. "I'm putting well. I think I hit two bad shots all day. I feel pretty good about my round. It was a course record, and I didn't know it at the time. I kept thinking when I teed it up that if I kept it at par or a couple under par I'd be OK."