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Curtis, Els end difficult day with lead

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Ben Curtis watches his shot from the 18th fairway bunker during Thursday's opening round of the Memorial. He shares the lead with Ernie Els.

Ben Curtis watches his shot from the 18th fairway bunker during Thursday’s opening round of the Memorial. He shares the lead with Ernie Els.

Chris Putman, Associated Press

Ernie Els and Ben Curtis made their share of birdies on a tough Muirfield Village course Thursday in Dublin, Ohio. What made them co-leaders in the first round of the Memorial was finishing with a par.

The last two British Open champions scrambled for par on the 18th hole — Els from a bunker, Curtis with a delicate pitch up the hill — and wound up with 4-under 68s, the highest score to lead at the Memorial in 14 years.

"It was quite a ride there at the end," Els said.

He was talking about his back nine — only two pars — but he could have been speaking for so many others.

Five players — J.L. Lewis, Stephen Ames, John Rollins, Arron Oberholser and Darren Fichardt — all came to the 18th hole with at least a share of the lead until bad shots, bad breaks and big numbers sent them back to the pack.

Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh made pars on No. 18, but little good that did them.

Woods hit a few wayward shots at the start and end of his round, but otherwise was out of harm's way for a 72. Singh, No. 2 in the world and playing with Woods for the first time this year, had a miserable time with his putter and had to scramble to salvage a 73.

Jack Nicklaus, the 64-year-old tournament host, had a 74 and has a decent chance to make the cut.

Despite soft conditions in the fairway that speckled tee shots with mud when they landed, the greens were fast, the wind was swirling and good scores were hard to come by. The 68 was the highest first-round lead at this tournament since 1990, when Fred Couples led with a 69.

Not many were surprised.

"Where they're tucking the flags, you can really look silly if you miss it," Els said.

Els holed a 50-foot eagle putt on No. 7 to get into the mix, then settled into his roller-coaster back nine that included a three-putt bogey from 20 feet and a bunker shot he holed for birdie on 17.

Curtis hasn't had a top 10 finish since his stunning victory at Royal St. George's last year, but his game is slowly coming around. He played bogey-free, a feat in itself at Muirfield, and surged to the top behind three straight birdies, finishing that stretch with a 30-footer at No. 10.

Curtis, who grew up about 20 minutes away in the tiny town of Ostrander, played the Memorial for the first time last year on a sponsor's exemption, although only his close friends and family knew much about him.

The cheers were much louder Thursday, in part because of his birdie binge, in part because of that silver claret jug.

"Every hole that I went up to, people were clapping, and it felt good," Curtis said. "Whereas last year, I could hear the familiar voices yelling out to me."

Fans gathered around the 18th green saw a familiar scene — guys with a chance to lead walking off in disgust.

Lewis was at 5 under until he hit too much club, a 5-iron, right of the 18th green. He chipped short to the first cut of rough, and his chip went down the slope, off the green and back into the fairway. When he failed to get up-and-down from there, he had a triple-bogey and had to settle for 70.

"It was the wrong club," Lewis said. "I had nobody to blame but me."

Next up was Ames, who birdied 17 to get to 5 under. He came up short of the green on No. 18, then wanted to make sure he got his chip up the hill so that it wouldn't roll back down. He chipped too hard, just over the green, and wound up with double bogey to fall one shot behind the leaders.

"If I hit the right shot, it was going to be 5, 6 feet past the hole, a chance for par," Ames said.

Rollins was tied for the lead at 4 under until he found a greenside bunker on the 18th and made bogey, while Oberholser pulled his tee shot into the water on 18 and made bogey to join Rollins at 69.

The last victim was Fichardt. From 157 yards away in the fairway, the South African went right of the green, chipped toward the hole and watched helplessly as it rolled back to the fairway. He wound up with a double bogey for 70.

Couples also hit into the creek down the left side of the 18th fairway, but a brilliant shot after his penalty stopped 6 feet below the cup and allowed him to escape with par.

He was in the large group at 69 that also included Paul Azinger, Lee Janzen, Todd Hamilton and Zach Johnson.

It looked as though Woods might not be anywhere near the lead. After striping the ball on the range, he proceeded to hit into a bunker on the opening hole, then hit a fat chip and had to save bogey. Then, he hit his driver on No. 2 so far to the right that he cleared the creek and nearly went out-of-bounds. He saved par with a 20-foot putt.

"I hit a couple of squirrelly ones starting off," Woods said. "Once I got dialed in, I was fine."

Singh missed nine putts inside 12 feet — four of those for birdie — and headed to the practice range where he got out the latest gadget to help him figure it out.

SORENSTAM EYES THIRD: Annika Sorenstam knows how difficult it is to win a tournament three times in a row. After all, she's done it twice.

Sorenstam, one of six LPGA players to win a tournament three consecutive times, starts her pursuit of a third straight Kellogg-Keebler Classic title today at Aurora, Ill.

"It is quite tough. My approach this week is try not to think about it," Sorenstam said. "I don't want to put more pressure on myself than I need to."

Compared to last year, this tournament is practically carefree.

Sorenstam won last year's event one week after her historic PGA Tour debut at the Colonial, a performance that set off a frenzy. Hundreds of fans wearing "Go Annika" buttons cheered her every move as she won for the second time at Stonebridge Country Club.

Things have settled down since then. At Thursday's pro-am, about 100 fans greeted Sorenstam on the first tee with polite applause— a far cry from last year's boisterous crowds that reached 10-deep for the Swede's practice round.

WALES OPEN: At Newport, Wales, David Howell shot a 7-under 65 to take a one-shot lead after the first round of the Wales Open. Marcel Siem and Emanuele Canonica were tied for second.