INDIAN WELLS, Calif. (AP) K.J. Choi overcame the nerves of playing in his first LG Skins Game by using a precise short game and key putts to take the first-day lead in the 26th annual event on Saturday.
Choi rolled in a three-foot birdie putt worth $75,000 on the third hole, and earned $75,000.
That gave him the lead over Phil Mickelson, who earned $25,000 with a spectacular eagle-3 on the fourth hole. Two-time defending champion Stephen Ames and Rocco Mediate, playing in his first Skins Game, were shut out on the first nine holes.
With the foursome halving the final five holes of the front nine, $900,000 of the event's $1 million purse is still alive for today's final nine holes at the Celebrity Course at Indian Wells Golf Resort.
"Everybody here is a good player, good games and good short-game players," Choi said. "I was just really focused on 100 yards and inside."
The focus paid off for Choi, who missed a 12-foot birdie on the first hole that could have won a skin but then made four birdies in the next seven holes. Playing the best golf of the foursome, Choi halved the second hole with Mediate with birdies, then won the $75,000 carryover money on the third hole with an easy three-foot birdie while Mickelson and Ames missed the green long and Mediate missed a 90-foot birdie putt.
Choi also birdied the sixth hole from six feet and the eighth hole from five feet, but was tied both times in the format that only gives money to the outright winner of a hole.
Choi said he came to the Skins Game hoping to avoid being one of the numerous players who have been shut out in the previous 25 events, and that pocketing the $75,000 eased his nerves.
Mickelson nearly recorded the Skins Game's first double-eagle on the 501-yard fourth hole, hitting his 5-iron approach shot from the rough around a tree. The ball hit the front edge of the green and rolled to within four inches of the cup. The tap-in eagle, and Ames missing a 25 foot eagle chance, earned Mickelson the $25,000 for the hole and a $25,000 home appliance and entertainment package.
Mickelson later hit a remarkable recovery shot from 60 yards to within two feet on the eighth hole, only to see that birdie halved by Ames and Mediate.
Mediate twice made long putts for birdies only to have another player make a shorter putt to halve the hole and keep Mediate shut out on the day.
On the ninth hole, with $200,000 in play, Mediate made a 20-foot birdie only to have Ames make a six-footer to deny Mediate.
With the foursome halving the final five holes Saturday, the first hole today will be worth $250,000.
"That's a lot of money on the first hole," said Ames, who won $650,000 of his $675,000 in the 2007 Skins Game on the final hole Sunday. "We'll see how well everyone sleeps tonight."
"It's going to be a very interesting first hole of the day," Mickelson said. "We are all going to be a little bit nervous, a little bit tight trying to make birdie, because the guy who gets that first skin is going to be able to freewheel it a little bit the back nine."