By Steve Keating
DORAL, Florida (Reuters) - American Harris English birdied his final hole in fading light to grab the clubhouse lead at the weather hit WGC-Cadillac Championship on Thursday with most of the field still on the course when play was suspended due to darkness.
English, who returned a three-under 69 on the revamped Blue Monster course was joined at the top of a crowded leaderboard with compatriots Hunter Mahan, Jason Dufner, Patrick Reed and Italian Francesco Molinari also on three-under, though they still have to complete their first rounds.
The redesigned course was put to an early test as a violent storm swept across south Florida drenching the Doral resort causing a two hour, 24 minute weather delay that allowed only six of the 68 players to complete their rounds.
English, who has four top 10 finishes in his last five PGA Tour starts, ended his day in spectacular style rolling a 47-foot birdie putt on the par-three ninth to complete an error free back nine.
"We were pretty much running to the tee on nine." English told reporters. "Jonas (Blixt) had just birdied eight and he said he wanted to hit, and Brendon (De Jonge) and I were very happy with that.
"It was getting really dark, very quickly, but I wanted to finish the hole, because it really changes the way you approach the day, waking up and playing one hole at 8:00 in the morning and then waiting around for three or four hours for your tee time. (It) is tough to do.
"That way in the morning, we can have a normal day."
Dufner, who got his round off to a blazing start with four successive birdies from the 11th, missed a chance to hold the outright lead when his six-foot par putt on the seventh rolled past the cup to take a bogey with two holes still to play.
Mahan will have four holes to complete, Molinari five and Reed seven when first round action resumes on Friday.
Lurking one shot behind the leaders on two-under is a pack of seven golfers led by Australian world number two Adam Scott, who will have a chance replace Tiger Woods at the top of the rankings if he wins on Sunday.
While Woods struggled with his putter, Scott reeled off seven successive pars to open his round before picking up his first birdie at the eighth then draining in a 12-footer at the ninth.
Woods, who pulled out of the final round of the Honda Classic on Sunday with a sore back, labored to two-over slumping off the course with a bogey at the 10th to leave him five behind the leaders and eight holes required to complete his round.
"Warmup was good and I felt good all day even through the delay," said Woods, refusing to blame any of this troubles on back spasms. "I'm ready to go back out tomorrow and play well.
"Hopefully tomorrow I can get back out there in the morning, play well and work back to even par by the end of the first round. Then shoot a low one in the afternoon."
Rory McIlroy, looking to rebound from a final round back nine meltdown and playoff loss at the Honda Classic last Sunday, got his day off to a flying start with birdies on three of his opening four holes.
But after a bogey-birdie wobble at 14 and 15 the Northern Irishman suddenly lost his form finishing his first nine with back-to-back bogeys.
Another bogey at the fourth and the double major winner found himself among another large group at one-under with four to play.
"Of course I wanted to get a fast start," said McIlroy. "I'm playing well and I'm comfortable with my game.
"So I wasn't going to let one bad day last week sort of derail the good path that I'm on.
"I said I'd be happy with anything under par from this round and I'm still on course for that. I'm happy with the way I played and I'd like to get something in the 60s and I'd be happy with that."
Aside from Scott it was not a fantastic start for the Australian contingent with world number four Jason Day withdrawing due to a thumb injury.
Brett Rumford then carded an ugly 11 on his opening hole, the par five 10th, which was followed by two more bogeys to leave him last in the elite field at eight-over still with six holes to go.
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)