By Mark Lamport-Stokes
LAKE FOREST, Illinois (Reuters) - Brandt Snedeker wielded a red-hot putter to pile up a PGA Tour season-best seven consecutive birdies on the way to a one-shot lead in Thursday's opening round of the BMW Championship.
The fast-talking American fired a flawless eight-under-par 63 despite tricky, gusting conditions at Conway Farms Golf Club to seize control of the third of the PGA Tour's four lucrative FedExCup playoff events.
Helped by a 40-foot putt which he sank from the back fringe of the green at the par-three 17th, his eighth hole of the day, Snedeker reeled off seven consecutive birdies from the 13th to rocket to the top of the leaderboard.
Compatriot Zach Johnson opened with a seven-birdie 64 and world number one Tiger Woods shot a 66 to end the day level with fellow Americans Steve Stricker and Kevin Streelman, and South African Charl Schwartzel, but Snedeker commanded the spotlight.
"It was one of those days where everything seemed to go right in the middle of the round," Snedeker, the reigning FedExCup champion, told reporters after totaling only 22 putts in an eight-birdie display.
"Got off to kind of a slow start and made a great birdie from off the green on 13 that got everything moving in the right direction. To roll off seven birdies in a row kind of came out of nowhere. I wasn't expecting it.
"When I get going good, I realize it doesn't happen all the time, so I instantly become more aggressive. I think being a good putter helps, too, because I don't really have to hit it (to) three feet eight times in a row."
Snedeker, a six-times winner on the PGA Tour who has triumphed twice this season, was a little disappointed he did not end up with a lower score.
"I made that putt on one (for seven straight birdies) and really felt like 61 or 60 was very doable," he said.
"I had a really good chance of doing it, and just didn't make any putts coming in after that. But I'm in a great frame of mind, looking forward to the rest of the week.
"Excited I got my one low one in me out of the way early and now I can go out and play some solid golf the rest of the week."
PGA Tour veteran Stricker, long known as one of the best putters on the U.S. circuit, played in the same group as Snedeker and was mightily impressed with his form.
"Watching Snedeker pouring it in from all over the place is always fun," said Stricker, who moved into contention with a round that included six birdies and a lone bogey.
"He's probably the best putter I've ever seen. The guy makes it, or looks like he's going to make it, from just about anywhere. He hit it great, gave himself a lot of putts and made a lot of putts."
Woods, seeking his sixth PGA Tour victory this season, was not in the best of moods after failing to birdie any of the three par-fives On the par-71 layout.
"I'm not exactly real happy," said the 14-times major winner, who mixed seven birdies with two bogeys. "I certainly wasted a lot of shots out there today. I missed three short ones (putts) and played the par-fives stupendously.
"One of those days. I played well, and I just didn't get much out of that round."
The day's average score was 71.31 and several of the game's biggest names finished much higher than that.
Northern Irish world number four Rory McIlroy, the defending champion, battled to a 78 while former world number one Lee Westwood fared even worse, carding a nine-over 80.
Seventy players have qualified for the elite BMW Championship, the PGA Tour's penultimate playoff event, and any improvement in the overall FedExCup points standings after Sunday's final round could be crucial.
Of the 30 who advance to next week's season-ending Tour Championship, any of the top five would automatically clinch FedExCup honors and a staggering $10 million bonus with victory in Atlanta.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)