DUBLIN, Ohio A sunny day at Muirfield Village should have been the first clue that the opening round at the Memorial might contain a few surprises.
Charles Howell III got the best one Thursday when he watched his 45-foot putt feed down the slope and curl into the cup on No. 18 for his eighth birdie in 12 holes, giving him an 8-under 64 and a one-stroke lead over Kenny Perry.
''What can I say? When things start going your way, they go your way,'' said Howell, who matched the best first-round score in the 28-year history of the Memorial.
Tiger Woods, playing on the PGA Tour for the first time since the Masters, made a birdie from 25 feet on the final hole for a 67. It was his lowest opening round since a 66 in the Disney Classic last October, but that's not what left him amazed.
''The scores are so low today,'' Woods said. ''It's hard to believe that 4-under is probably not going to be in the top 10. You don't see that on this golf course.''
Another surprise was seeing Nicklaus make a brief appearance on the leaderboard only it wasn't Jack, the tournament host and winner of 18 majors.
Gary Nicklaus, the 34-year-old son of the Golden Bear who is playing on a sponsor's exemption, birdied five of his first nine holes before faltering to a 69.
The old man struggled to a 4-over 76, a score that left him in a grumpy mood considering how easy his beloved Muirfield Village played.
''With the greens relatively soft and without any wind, you're going to have to put the pins in the bunkers to make it any tougher,'' Jack Nicklaus said.
He had no complaints about the weather. Few tournaments have had worse weather issues than the Memorial. This was only the fourth round in the last 14 years that was completed without any type of a rain delay.
Thursday was a nice break with mostly sunny skies, a mild breeze and smooth greens that allowed 56 players to shoot par or better more than half of the 104-man field.
No one took advantage quite like Howell. He played a practice round with Nicklaus last year and got a better idea how to play the course from its designer. The formula was simple on Thursday, as Howell belted his drives down the wide fairways and gave himself easy scoring opportunities.
He made six birdies putts inside 15 feet, rolled in a 12-footer for eagle on No. 15 and made the longest putt he had all day on the final hole.
''I really didn't have many putts over the 15- to 20-foot range,'' Howell said. ''Now I had a putt from 45 feet across the green. I was very fortunate to get the speed right. It was perfect enough to drop in. I would have taken a par and left.''
Still, his most important hole might have been a bogey.
Howell hit a 9-iron that was going right at the flag on No. 6 but hit the bank and rolled back into the pond. He dropped 100 yards from the green, hit sand wedge to 8 feet and holed the putt for a bogey to limit the damage.
''That was important for me to keep it going,'' he said.
The bad news for Howell? A first-round leader has never gone on to win the Memorial.
Perry is coming off a six-stroke victory at Colonial, where he finished at a tournament-record 19 under par. He is 26 under over his last five rounds.
''Very similar golf to last week,'' Perry said. The only difference was he didn't have to answer a single question about Annika Sorenstam.
John Huston, who owns the course record at Muirfield Village (61 in 1991), holed out for eagle from the ninth fairway with a sand wedge and finished with a 66.
Along with Woods, the large group at 67 included Vijay Singh, Retief Goosen, Lee Janzen and Brad Faxon. Defending champion Jim Furyk and John Daly were among those at 68.
Woods is coming off a tie for 29th at the Deutsche Bank-SAP Open in Germany, his worst finish ever in a non-PGA Tour event.
''I played like this in Germany, I just didn't putt on good greens,'' he said. ''Here, the greens are perfect. You hit good putts, they go in.''
Woods also had problems on No. 6, which played the toughest at Muirfield Village. From a fairway bunker, he caught his approach a little heavy and went into the water, but made a downhill bogey putt from 8 feet.
Woods played with a new Nike driver that was similar to the one he used at Bethpage Black last year when he won the U.S. Open. This one had slightly less loft to accommodate a new golf ball that bores through the wind what little there was.
He has finished out of the top 10 in his last three tournaments, his longest streak since he ended the 2001 season with three straight finishes lower than 10th. But he has good vibes at the Memorial, where he won three straight times starting in 1999.
''No matter how I play, I always feel like I've got a chance here,'' he said.
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