Saturday, December 20, 2008

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) — Even in what amounts to an exhibition with one of the biggest first-place checks of the year, Camilo Villegas looked mildly agitated when he finished the first round of the Chevron World Challenge near the bottom of the pack.

Scores have been higher than usual at Sherwood Country Club, mainly because of bone-chilling temperatures and rain early in the week that has produced splotches of mud on golf balls.

Villegas took issue with rules officials who didn't think it was wet enough to allow players to lift, clean and place their golf balls.

The Colombian loves to compete, and he loves to entertain.

On Friday, Villegas made enough adjustments to post the lowest round of the week, a 5-under 67 that left him only two shots behind Jim Furyk and in the final group going into the weekend of Tiger Woods' charity event.

``I don't really get what we're trying to prove here,'' Villegas said. ``I mean, it's 16 guys, the end of the year. It's a fun tournament. You're trying to show them some good shots, some birdies, and sometimes they don't understand when we hit it 50, 60 yards off target. And it's just because of the mud.''

He must have figured it out, running off three straight birdies and regaining his momentum late for a 67.

Furyk was far more steady. He never lost outright possession of the lead, finally made a birdie on a par 5 and dropped only one shot when he found a bunker on the 18th hole, adding to a 1-under 71 for a two-shot lead over Villegas, Anthony Kim (70) and K.J. Choi (71).

Mud balls?

``Sure,'' said Furyk, who was at 5-under 139. ``Everyone did.''

Villegas wants to put on a show, whether it's his deliberate takeaway and powerful swing or snappy clothing, which on Friday featured a white outfit with a short-sleeved shirt with temperatures in the 50s.

That's what he did at the end of the year.

After capturing his first PGA Tour event at the BMW Championship in St. Louis, Villegas went back-to-back with a playoff victory at East Lake in the Tour Championship. He wound up second in the FedEx Cup standings, seventh on the PGA Tour money list and No. 7 in the world ranking.

``Obviously, it was awesome, very gratifying,'' he said. ``A lot of work. It took me a little bit longer to win than some guys thought it should have, but at the same time, I look at it right now and I think it's perfect timing. I got better and better every year, and that will be the goal for next year.''

Next year will get here soon enough.

The winners-only Mercedes-Benz Championship starts Jan. 8 at Kapalua, and Villegas wants to stay among the elite players.

He already feels that way being at the Chevron World Challenge, the final tournament of the year that features a strong collection of the top 50 players.

For 15 of those players, the top 50 refers to ranking. For Fred Couples, it refers to age.

Couples was a PGA Tour rookie a year before Villegas was born, and despite back problems that dramatically slowed his career, he always seems to produce. Even this year, playing when his health allowed with limited practice, he easily finished among the top 125 on the money list by making nearly $950,000.

``He's one of the best players of this era, so I'm not surprised,'' Furyk said. ``I didn't realize he was so close to the Champions Tour.''

Couples, left out of the Skins Game this year, usually thrives during the silly season. Most of that is not the format, rather his familiarity of the golf courses that he has played for so many years.

Sherwood is no exception, and he put himself into contention with four birdies on the front nine and an otherwise smooth round until a mud-ball bogey on the 18th.

``I wouldn't consider myself to be a threat too much anymore,'' Couples said. ``But I know I can go around this course because of old habit, and I've played here and I like the course. So that certainly helps me.''

If there is such a thing as pressure in the silly season, this is it.

Woods lobbied to get official world ranking points for his Chevron World Challenge, but he had to make concessions. Starting next year, the sponsor exemptions must be ranked inside the top 50.

``I've played so many times on a sponsor's exemption, and Tiger came up the other day and he said, 'I've got to tell you something,''' Couples said. ``I go, 'Oh my God, what did I do wrong?' He said, 'You cannot play my tournament next year unless you're in the top 50.'

``What am I, 400th right now?''

With Couples, it's never as bad as it seems it should be.

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