ATLANTA, May 5 (Reuters) South Africa's Trevor Immelman produced a blistering finish to grab a share of the first-round lead at the Wachovia Championship in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The 26-year-old yesterday birdied six of his last nine holes for a four-under-par 68 at Quail Hollow Club, ending a sun-drenched day level with compatriot Rory Sabbatini and Americans Jim Furyk and Bill Haas.
Sabbatini, winner of the Nissan Open in Los Angeles in February, held the outright lead at five under before bogeying his final hole, the treacherous par-four ninth.
On a testing course rated the seventh most difficult on the 2005 PGA Tour, Davis Love III eagled the par-five fifth on his way to a 69 and a tie for fifth with fellow Americans Billy Andrade and Lucas Glover.
Twice US Open champion Retief Goosen was a further stroke back among a group of eight, along with Britain's Justin Rose and Americans Paul Azinger, Shaun Micheel and Stewart Cink.
''This course sets up exactly like a US Open or a (US) PGA (Championship),'' Immelman told reporters after teeing off at the par-five 10th.
''You've got long holes and you have to be deadly accurate off the tee because, if you're in the rough, you've got no chance of scoring.'' The South African, chasing his first PGA Tour title, completed the outward nine in two-over 38 before setting up his strong finish with a birdie-three at the first.
SPARKLING ORDER With his approach play in sparkling order, Immelman went on to pick up further shots at the third, fourth, sixth, seventh and ninth.
''I just caught some momentum on those nine holes, and it was nice to convert all my chances,'' he said.
US Masters champion Phil Mickelson, hunting his third title on the 2006 PGA Tour, was among a group on 71 after mixing six birdies with five bogeys.
''I'm not disappointed with one under par,'' the American left-hander said. ''Even though the course is playing as easy as it can play with no wind and perfect weather, it's a tough course.
''I think that any round under par was a good round today.'' Defending champion Vijay Singh, three-times major winner Ernie Els, Australia's Adam Scott and British Ryder Cup player Luke Donald also opened with 71s.
However, Spaniard Sergio Garcia battled to a 75 and will have his work cut out in Friday's second round if he is to qualify for the weekend.
Nine of the world's top 11 players are competing at Quail Hollow in one of the strongest fields of the year.
The absentees are world number one Tiger Woods, whose father Earl died on Wednesday after a long battle with cancer, and eighth-ranked David Toms, who withdrew earlier in the week.
Reuters VJ VP0625