PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) Fred Couples didn't realize until a few months ago that he wasn't eligible for The Players Championship, an event he has won twice and counts among his favorite.
Couples missed nearly all of last year with back problems, so he wasn't among the top 125 on the money list. But with so many players pulling out, from Tiger Woods to Martin Kaymer of Germany, Couples kept moving up the alternate list until he got in.
He made the most out of his 25th start at Sawgrass.
Couples was among the leaders until a bogey from the bunker on the 14th, and a three-putt bogey on the 17th, leading to a 70. But he can only imagine being at Sawgrass and waiting to hear if he got in.
"Not to be mean, I just don't have that in me," he said. "If I sat here for three days and didn't get in, I think I'd be miserable for a month."
Couples didn't have to wait and he didn't have anything to complain about Thursday. Coming off an eighth-place finish at Wachovia, the two-time champion looked solid from the start.
"I feel pretty confident," Couples said. "I'm not playing tremendous golf, but if you do a few things, you can inch your way up there."
After taking most of last year off to deal with chronic back problems, Couples returned this year and has put together several solid rounds. He has three top-10 finishes in nine events.
"I don't feel as good as I did earlier in the year, but I feel better than I have in a long time," he said.
GOYDOS' OFFERING: When Paul Goydos normally reaches the famed No. 17 island green at TPC Sawgrass during practice rounds, he reaches into his bag, grabs a few old balls and tosses them into the murky lagoon as some sort of offering to the golf gods.
He forgot to do it this week.
Maybe he should have. Goydos landed his tee shot, an 8-iron from 146 yards, pin high and it bounced over the back edge. He ended up with a bogey.
"When I hit it, I had a bad feeling I hit it too good," said Goydos, who shot a 4-under 68 in the opening round and was two shots behind leader Sergio Garcia. "I don't have that feeling very often. I was kind of hoping it was an optical illusion that it was going so far."
Goydos bounced back from the bogey with a par on the difficult 18th, then made three consecutive birdies to start his back nine.
So 17 wasn't all bad.
"I even make the argument that that was the hole that kept me levelheaded," he said.
PERRY'S VISION: Kenny Perry called his 4-under 68 Thursday the best round of golf he has played all year. It could have been much better had he not missed three fairly short birdie putts.
Perry missed from inside 10 feet on Nos. 6, 12 and 14, an all-too-familiar feeling for the 47-year-old Perry the last few years.
"I just don't read the greens very good anymore," he said. "I don't know if I can't seen. I don't know what it is. I just can't see the line like I used to for whatever reason."
Perry had Lasik surgery a decade ago, then had an enhancement a couple of years later. But his eyesight started deteriorating last year, forcing him to return to wearing contact lenses during the day and glasses at night. But his vision remains a problem, especially around the putting surface.
"It's like I can't see the speed of the green. I can't see the grass. I can't see the grain.," he said.
Making things even more baffling, Perry made a 35-footer for birdie on No. 3 and rolled in a 20-footer for birdie on the seventh.
"I don't get it right now," he said.
PLAYER WITHDRAWALS: Masters champion Trevor Immelman, Hunter Mahan and Jason Gore withdrew from The Players Championship on Thursday.
Immelman headed home to Orlando after he woke up with a stomach virus, leaving the PGA Tour's flagship event without the last two major champions. PGA champion Tiger Woods missed the tournament while recovering from knee surgery.
Mahan and Gore also withdrew because of illness. Mahan played two holes, parred both, and left the course. Gore walked away after four holes, which included a quadruple bogey and a double bogey.
Ryan Armour withdrew after the first round. He shot a 9-over 81.
Immelman has had a tough time since winning the Masters by three shots over Woods. He failed to break par in his last two tournaments, missing the cut at the EDS Byron Nelson Championship and the Wachovia Championship.
Immelman was replaced by Dustin Johnson, a 23-year-old rookie who opened with a 73.
Johnson arrived at the course around 6:15 a.m, and was sitting in the locker room watching television when he received a text message telling him he was teeing off at 8:30 a.m.
"I kind of expected not to get in as first alternate," Johnson said. "But it just happened I did. ... It was pretty exciting."
DIVOTS: The PGA Tour does not market The Players Championship as a major, although it sure seems to act like one. In a subtle change this year, the name on the back of caddie bibs included the flag from the country where the player was born. And the players were introduced by name and country and every other PGA Tour event, they are introduced by name and the city where they live. ... Rich Beem holed out from the seventh fairway for an eagle on his way to a 72. ... Paul Goydos no longer has an endorsement deal with Pep Boys, so he wore a Long Beach State baseball cap.