BETHESDA, Md. (AP) – The rush of excitement over the return of golf’s biggest names to the historic Congressional Country Club turned out to be a mere postscript to a landmark day. Matt Gogel, ranked No. 170 on the PGA Tour money list, teed off in the first group at 7 a.m. and set a Blue Course record with an 8-under 63 on Thursday before lightning halted play in the Booz Allen Classic.

Playing while the heat and humidity were oppressive but not yet stifling, Gogel birdied eight of his last 13 holes in a bogey-free round to take a three-shot lead over Lee Westwood, Brett Wetterich, Fredrik Jacobson and Kevin Stadler. Stadler was the only one of the four yet to complete the round, having finished 14 holes when play was stopped for the day at 5:45 p.m.

“I’m surprised to see an 8 under up there,” Westwood said. “He must have played well. This is a tough golf course.”

Still, with the greens soft and the conditions calm, Congressional was ripe for someone in the star-studded field to better the 64 shot by Tommy Jacobs in the 1964 U.S. Open and matched three times – by George Burns, Bobby Clampett and Fred Couples – when the Booz Allen, then known as the Kemper Open, was played here annually in the 1980s.

But who would do it? Vijay Singh? Phil Mickelson? Ernie Els? Eight of the world’s top 10 players are here, attracted by the prestige of Congressional in the club’s first pro event since the 1997 U.S. Open as well as the chance for a final tuneup before next week’s U.S. Open at Pinehurst.

Instead, it was Gogel, who didn’t even qualify for the U.S. Open. Gogel has missed nine of 13 cuts this year, and his only PGA Tour victory came at Pebble Beach in 2002. He was slumping badly until he changed irons, then tied for 24th at the St. Jude Classic two weeks ago.

“It’s kind of my time,” Gogel said. “I really hit rock bottom about a month and a half ago. I just had the most disappointing year I’ve ever had in professional golf, so it’s finally turned around. I’m getting some confidence.”

And where are those top 10 golfers? Scan the scores down to the group tied for 13th place, where defending champion Adam Scott shot a 68. Ernie Els, at 2 under with one hole to play, is one of 42 players who will complete their rounds Friday morning.

“It’s too hot today to be playing golf, too humid, for all of us,” said Scott, who finished in the mid-afternoon.

Starting on the back nine, Gogel parred his first five holes before a wedge to 15 feet at No. 15 set up his first birdie. His longest putt was 23 feet at No. 4, and he nearly eagled from 40 feet at the par-5 No. 6 and instead settled for a short birdie to get to 7 under. His tee shot at the par-3 seventh went into the bunker, but he blasted out of the sand to 4 feet to save par.

An approach to 2 feet at No. 8 got Gogel to 8 under, and a two-putt from 40 feet at the par-5 ninth secured the record.

Did the nerves hit as he saw his score get lower and lower?

“No,” he said, “because I’ve had such a lousy year. I’m saying, Get as many as you can.’ Guys out here don’t back down.”

Gogel said he might have benefited with an early tee time on a day when the temperature reached 87 degrees with 55 percent humidity, but that doesn’t mean his conditions were cozy: “Everybody was hot by the first hole,” he said.

Actually, his course record and the other low scores are due more to the technological leap in golf since the pros’ last visit eight years ago, when Congressional hosted what was then the longest U.S. Open course in history. Also, the rough isn’t quite as thick, and the greens aren’t as slick as they were in 1997.

Even so, few expected a leaderboard of Gogel, Westwood, Wetterich, Jacobson and Stadler.

“That’s Thursday,” Jacobson, who has only one top-10 finish this year, said with a chuckle. “Take another look on Sunday.”

Divots: While 63 is a course record, it is not a tournament record. Charles Howell III shot a 61 in last year’s Booz Allen at the TPC at Avenel. … Pat Perez withdrew after shooting a 74 but did not give a reason. … Andre Stolz pulled out after nine holes with an unspecified injury.

AP-ES-06-09-05 1842EDT


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