PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – With one bold swing, Camilo Villegas turned a solid round at the Honda Classic into his lowest start in more than a year.
Villegas drilled a 3-wood from 263 yards over the water to about 8 feet for an eagle on the par-5 18th hole at PGA National for a 6-under 64 that gave him a one-shot lead and another jolt of confidence as he tries to regain his status on the PGA Tour.
Branden Grace was bullish when it came to the “Bear’s Trap” by making birdie on all three holes of the notorious stretch late on the back nine. He made it four in a row with a birdie on the 18th hole and was at 65 with Rickie Fowler, Graham DeLaet of Canada and Robert Streb.
Defending champion Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods each opened with 70 and walked away feeling much differently about their day.
Woods played in the cool, cloudy morning and was in danger of a big number late in his round when he decided to take off his socks and shoes, don rain pants and step into a creek to play a shot half-submerged in the water. Instead of taking a drop that could have led to double bogey, he escaped with par and rallied for a 70.
“I wasn’t trying to advance it very far, just make sure I got it back in the fairway and give myself some kind of wedge shot in there, which I did,” Woods said.
McIlroy was 1 under for his day when his wedge from 105 yards sailed over the green, he chipped to just inside 8 feet and took bogey when he missed the putt. It felt even worse coming on the easiest hole at PGA National, which played about a half-shot below par.
“I only had 105 yards in for my third shot and ended up taking a 6,” McIlroy said. “Wasn’t the nicest way to finish. I saw enough pretty good golf out there to be positive going into the next few days.”
Villegas will take just about anything positive at this stage in his career.
Just four years after his back-to-back wins in FedEx Cup playoff events and climbing to as high as No. 7 in the world, the 31-year-old Colombian went into a slump so bad that over the last 18 months he lost his card last year and didn’t earn it back in Q-school. A popular draw, he has received ample sponsor exemptions to get through the year and can build a full schedule. But he was middle-of-the-pack in the Humana Challenge, and then missed the cut at Torrey Pines and Pebble Beach.
“This game is great when you’re playing good,” Villegas said. “When you’re out here missing cuts and missing cuts, I don’t care what people say. Yes, we’re blessed to have this job, but it’s not that much fun. … The game was kicking my butt a little bit. That’s a good way to put it. But I know who I am. I know I belong out here. I know how good I can be, and therefore, that’s why you’re just going to keep your head up and keep working.”
It was his lowest round since a 63 to start the Humana Challenge a year ago.
Villegas won the Honda Classic in 2010 at PGA National, so he at least has that to build on. Despite the good start, he wasn’t afraid to risk ruining the day on the last hole.
“My caddie said, `Where are you going to go with the one,”‘ Villegas said. “And I said, `I’m looking straight at that flag.’ And I hit a great shot.”
Grace, part of the core of young South Africans on the rise, played the Honda Classic for the first time, though he had heard plenty about the water and trouble on Nos. 15, 16 and 17 that was dubbed “Bear’s Trap” in honor of course designer Jack Nicklaus. He saw it on TV and talked to Charl Schwartzel about it last week.
And he brought a little trepidation with him to PGA National.
“I sat down with Charl last week at the Match Play and he said, `Listen, the four finishing holes are quite a beast out there.’ So I was a little nervous coming here,” Grace said. “I just thought, `What’s going to happen around that corner?”‘
The first one was easy after a tee shot into 2 feet on the par-3 15th. He holed birdie putts of about 18 feet on the next two holes, and then his 3-iron barely cleared the water in front of the green on the par-5 18th, leading to a simple up-and-down to finish in style.
Dustin Johnson, coming off two missed cuts and a first-round loss in the Match Play, sorted out his issues with the driver and opened at 66 to join a group that included Lee Westwood, Sean O’Hair, Boo Weekley and Ben Kohles, who won back-to-back Web.com Tour events last year in his two starts after turning pro to earn a tour card.
Woods didn’t hit it all that poorly, except for his tee shot on the par-4 sixth, with the tees moved forward 40 yards. He drove it left and down the bank into the water. Because of where it first crossed the hazard, he would have had no chance to get near the green after a penalty drop. Woods saw enough the ball to give it a shot.
He removed his shoes and socks as the gallery came to life. The ball shot out with a big splash, leaving Woods about 80 yards to a front pin. He hit wedge to 8 feet and saved par.
“I was 1 over at the time, and if that ball is not playable from where it’s at, where I crossed was pretty far back,” Woods said. “Looking at 6 — 3 over — and all of a sudden I flip it, make par there and birdie the next.”
MUNOZ LEADS IN LPGA
Spain’s Azahara Munoz shot a 7-under 65 for a two-stroke lead after the first round of the HSBC Women’s Champions in Singapore, which features 17 of the top 20 LPGA players.
Munoz played in the day’s first group and finished with seven birdies. Five players at Sentosa Golf Club shared second at 67: Stacy Lewis, Karin Sjodin, Lizette Salas, Pornanong Phatlum and Sun Young Yoo.
Munoz is coming off her strongest season on tour, winning her first title at the Sybase Match Play Championship and enjoying nine top-10 finishes.
“I don’t know what it is but my best three rounds on tour have been first tee time,” she said. “I really like it. You don’t have to wait, it’s super nice, the greens are perfect. I think it gets me going.”
Paula Creamer was in a four-way tie at 68 despite an injured right shoulder from a car accident. The five-car accident happened on the way to the airport after the Honda LPGA tournament in Thailand.
Two other players, Ai Miyazato and Suzann Pettersen, sustained minor injuries in the crash. Miyazato pulled out of the HSBC Champions on Wednesday, citing stiffness in her back, neck and shoulder.
Also at 68 were top-ranked Yani Tseng of Taiwan, Danielle Kang and Chella Choi.
Tseng, a five-time major winner, was five shots off the lead before sinking a 25-foot putt for eagle on the 18th hole. Tseng hasn’t won a tournament in nearly a year, but she has started the 2013 season with a second-place finish at the Australian Open and a tie for third at Thailand last weekend.
She said she made a bet with her manager, Naya Hsu, on Thursday morning to better motivate herself. If she scored a 68 or better, Hsu agreed to go skydiving with her in Hawaii.
“When that putt dropped in, I was so happy,” Tseng said. “I was looking for her. I saw her face, I think she’s going to cry.
“I think it feels good because I haven’t had that feeling for a long time,” she said. “The last two weeks, kind of a little rushed, trying to play well on the first day. And today I’ve been patient because I know it’s only the first day, I still have three days left.”
Creamer was just happy to be on the course after her accident. She said she jammed her shoulder when she hit the dashboard of the car and suffered whiplash after slamming her head off the headrest.
“At the beginning of the round, I really couldn’t feel my right side and I didn’t know if I was going to be able to even go,” she said. “I thought if I could get through the first five holes, I would be OK. I have no expectations whatsoever this week,” she said.
Second-ranked Na Yeon Choi, who is trying to close in on Tseng’s No. 1 ranking, shot a 69. Michelle Wie, South Korea’s Jiyai Shin and Australia’s Karrie Webb were at 71, with Pettersen at 73. Defending champion Angela Stanford had a quadruple bogey on the par-4 13th en route to a 76.
FICHARDT ON TOP IN SOUTH AFRICA
Darren Fichardt of South Africa birdied the longest par-5 in European Tour history to lead the inaugural Tshwane Open by one stroke after the first round in Centurion, South Africa.
Fichardt shot a 7-under-par 65 and was one of three players in the top 24 to need only four shots on the 685-yard fourth hole.
“I hit driver, 3-iron, 7-iron and holed a 12-foot putt,” said Fichardt, who lives 10 minutes from the Els Club course at the Copperleaf Golf and Country Estate. “But I mean, at that length, into the wind and with the fairways not running, it’s not a fun hole.”
Bjorn Akesson of Sweden was at 66, with six players at 67. Darren Clarke opened with a 69 while Michael Campbell was at 72 and Jose Maria Olazabal at 76.
“This golf course is awesome, it’s very fair,” Fichardt said. “The greens are very soft, so you’re able to attack the flags.”
Two weeks ago, Fichardt captured a fourth European Tour title in winning the Africa Open at East London. Last week, he was seventh in a Sunshine Tour event.
“I’ve been playing for eight weeks in a row and I don’t even know what’s going on,” he said. “I’m just going with the flow and hitting one shot at a time, so I’m looking forward to a break after this week.”
Akesson joined Fichardt in the lead after birdies at Nos. 13 and 14 and an eagle-3 at the 15th. Akesson, however, bogeyed the 17th to drop into second.
In the big group in third were England’s David Howell and Gary Lockerbie, South Africa’s Charl Coetzee and Jean Hugo, India’s Jeev Milkha Singh and Chile’s Mark Tullo.