AP Golf Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- Any other PGA Tour rookie might be rattled to see Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood right behind him on the leaderboard. Scott Gardiner was delighted, which speaks more to how he got there than where it might lead.
After missing eight consecutive cuts, Gardiner ended that streak in style Friday in the Wells Fargo Championship with a 5-under 67 that gave him a one-shot lead over McIlroy, Westwood and two others among early starters at Quail Hollow.
"It's nice to be in the same tournament as they are. That's my first thought," Gardiner said.
The 37-year-old rookie certainly has paid his dues.
Gardiner was the first Aboriginal to turn pro, which he credits to a scholarship program called, "The Hunt for the Australian Tiger" that began in 2000 when Tiger Woods won three majors in one of the greatest years in golf. That enabled him to go from a good amateur to an aspiring pro, and while nothing has come easily, the Aussie has enjoyed every bit of the ride.
The eight years on the Web.com Tour. Marrying an Arkansas girl and settling in the land of Razorbacks. Narrowly missing his PGA Tour card in 2010 when he finished 26th on the money list, and looking at it more as improvement than failure.
Even this year has been a struggle. Gardiner made his PGA Tour debut in the Sony Open and played in the next to last group Sunday, tying for 15th.
"I got a false impression," he said. "These guys are good. I'm not going to lie."
He hasn't made a cut since the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in early February, and he said that "nobody was more surprised than I am" that his name was atop the leaderboard. When a reporter asked him why he was surprised, Gardiner laughed and said, "Have you seen my resume this year?"
Gardiner kept plugging away, and he hooked up with Dave Stockton this week to work on his short game, particularly the chipping and putting. Gardiner felt like he wasn't scoring as well as he should have been, and that hasn't been an issue through 36 holes. He was at 7-under 137.
Among the late starters, Phil Mickelson had four birdies on the front nine and was at 8 under.
Westwood is battling a chest cold this week, which hasn't hurt him too much. He was poised to join Gardiner in the lead until hitting two shots into the water on the par-5 seventh hole and making a 25-foot putt to escape with bogey.
McIlroy began his round by hitting a 15-foot birdie putt some 10 feet past the cup and missing that for a three-putt bogey on a par 5. He also made bogey on the 18th, and then quickly turned it around on the front nine with three birdies for a 71. He was in good shape, despite playing the par 5s in 1 over.
"I didn't play the par 5s very well today, but I think it shows how the rest of my game is, that I'm still right there and able to score," McIlroy said.
Jason Kokrak had a 70 and also was one shot back, as was Rod Pampling, who really is happy just to be in the field. Pampling lost a four-hole playoff in the Monday qualifier for this tournament, and then drove down to Georgia for a Web.com Tour event. Once he heard he had gone up from the ninth to the first alternate, he headed to Quail Hollow. Ben Crane withdrew and Pampling was the last man in.
A few good putts later, he had a 69-69 start and had a late tee time for the weekend.
Gardiner has shown remarkable resilience over the years. His father had him play just about any sport, and Gardiner first showed form in the discus. His father played golf once a month, and there was no shortage of junior golf clinics on the Gold Coast. The big break, however, came from the National Aboriginal Sports Corp. of Australia, which provided the scholarship programs.
"They gave a lot of kids scholarships to work in the golf industry -- not just to try to play great golf, but in offices to be an assistant pro or try to become a pro," he said. "It was a great leg up for me to chase my dream."
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