By Tony Jimenez
VIRGINIA WATER, England (Reuters) - Sergio Garcia, embroiled in a racism row with Tiger Woods this week, got by with a little help from his friends on Thursday as he battled to a level-par 72 in the PGA Championship first round.
South African veteran James Kingston led the way on 66 but most of the attention at the European Tour's flagship event was focused on Garcia following his "fried chicken" jibe at world number one Woods on Tuesday.
The Spaniard played alongside compatriot Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano and Britain's Luke Donald in the opening round. He said he was grateful for that and for the support of the crowd at the iconic Wentworth course on the outskirts of London.
"I was very fortunate to be paired with two friends of mine so they could help me get along a little bit easier," Garcia told reporters after signing off by holing a 20-foot putt to claim the only eagle three all day at the 18th.
The world number 14's effort at the last sparked a huge roar from the crowd who had also given Garcia a warm welcome on the first tee.
"The reaction was great, it was amazing," he said. "I've always been very fortunate with fans all over the world, not only here in Europe.
"I've always been very lucky with that and I'm very thankful for it," added Garcia who issued an apology on Wednesday for his jibe at Woods.
The Spaniard said on Thursday that he had talked to the world number one's manager over the phone.
"He said they are moving forward," Garcia added. "If I manage to talk to him (Woods), perfect, if not I'll definitely see him at the U.S. Open next month and we can talk face to face."
Fried chicken has become a racial stereotype in the U.S. when referring to African-Americans, a reference to the days before the abolition of slavery when chicken was believed to be a staple part of the diet.
Garcia's remark came when he was asked on stage at a tour function on Tuesday whether he would be inviting Woods for dinner during next month's U.S. Open in Pennsylvania.
"We will have him round every night," said the Spaniard. "We will serve fried chicken."
Fourteen-times major winner Woods, whose relationship with the Spaniard has always been frosty, reacted on Twitter by saying: "The comment that was made wasn't silly. It was wrong, hurtful and clearly inappropriate".
European Tour chief executive George O'Grady also apologized on Thursday after re-opening the row by making an unfortunate comment about "colored athletes".
Just when it seemed the fuss was starting to die down, O'Grady entered the debate by giving an interview to Sky Sports television.
"I deeply regret using an inappropriate word in a live interview...for which I unreservedly apologize," O'Grady said in a statement.
Earlier in the day, the tour chief had said: "Most of Sergio's friends are colored athletes in the United States and he is absolutely abject in his apology and we accepted it".
Asked for his reaction to O'Grady's comments at the end of his round, Garcia replied: "I think it's unfortunate".
Away from the Woods-Garcia fallout, the 47-year-old Kingston notched four birdies in the last seven holes to move one stroke clear of the field in almost wintry conditions.
Several players wore beanies and thick mittens for protection against eight-degree temperatures and winds gusting up to 30 kms an hour.
"Midway through my round it got really cold and windy," said Kingston who is playing this week on a sponsor's invitation. "It was a tough day, one of those days when you are just happy to walk off with a decent score.
"I lost my card for the first time last year because I didn't play well enough but it only takes one decent week somewhere and you get back on the tour."
Finn Mikko Ilonen was in second place on 67, one ahead of Fernandez-Castano and Briton Scott Henry.
Austrian Martin Wiegele was level with Fernandez-Castano and Henry on four-under with five holes to play when darkness fell.
Play was stopped for 90 minutes in the afternoon because of the threat of lightning and Wiegele is one of 15 competitors who must return on Friday morning to complete their rounds.
World number two Rory McIlroy slumped to a 74 after dropping five shots in the last six holes.
"It was one of those rounds I let slip through my fingers," said the Northern Irishman. "The thing that gets me is the cold and I was wearing mittens all day."
World number six Donald's hopes of winning the event for the third year in a row were ruined as he ballooned to a 78.
Briton Jason Levermore, a club professional, shot a 72 that included a hole-in-one at the short second while Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez, 49, carded a 76 on the day he became only the sixth player to chalk up 600 European Tour appearances.
(Editing by John Mehaffey)