Villegas takes lead at BMW, and Stricker, with burden lifted, is close behind

Camilo Villegas, round 1, 2008 BMW Championship
Jeff Roberson/AP
Villegas shot 31 on the front nine.

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Camilo Villegas and Steve Stricker were excited to be playing golf Friday for different reasons, and it showed during a soggy start to the BMW Championship.

Villegas, coming off a tie for third last week that allowed him to advance in the PGA Tour Playoffs, continued his good form with eight birdies on long, soft Bellerive Country Club for a 5-under 65 that gave him a one-shot lead.

The 26-year-old Colombian believes winning is a process, and it appears to be accelerating with each round.

"Sometimes you really want to be on the golf course and it's going great, and sometimes it's a grind," Villegas said. "You've got to be ready for both. I'm excited right now. I feel really good about by golf."

Stricker made a 35-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole for a 4-under 66, tied with Kenny Perry, Tim Herron, Stuart Appleby and Andres Romero.

The smile on his face had more to do with the putt.

His stomach has been churning the last month during what felt like an audition for the Ryder Cup. Stricker, who was bumped out of automatic qualifying at the PGA Championship, began sweating over every poor shot, every missed putt, and he only exhaled Monday night when U.S. captain Paul Azinger told him he was being selected.

The burden lifted, he played some of his most relaxed golf of the year.

"It was a lot different than the last two weeks," Stricker said. "I did feel a little more at easy. I didn't feel as much pressure on every shot. I felt a lot more relaxed."

PGA Tour officials breathed easy, too.

The first round Thursday was postponed because of 3 inches of rain that about turned Bellerive into a water park. The forecast called for the storm to pass in the afternoon, but it stubbornly stayed through Friday morning, with a light rain as players warmed up on the range.

Even so, Bellerive was in decent shape. Some tees were moved forward, and hole locations were on high ground. Players were able to lift, clean and place their golf balls through the fairway. And while the course played every bit of its 7,324 yards, firing at the flags was merely target practice.

Thirty-six players in the 69-man field man field broke par, a group that did not include Vijay Singh, winner of the first two events in the finale for the FedEx Cup.

Singh remains virtually a lock unless someone close in the standings wins the last two events. But he hardly looked like the guy who won a playoff at Barclays and closed with a 63 to win the Deutsche Bank Championship.

He missed putts that had been going in from everywhere. Trying to putt with the blade of his sand wedge through the first cut of rough on the par-3 sixth, he stubbed the shot and took bogey. With a wedge in his hand, he came up 20 yards short of his mark and flipped his club to the ground.

Singh still wound up with a 70.

"It's not an easy golf course," he said. "The greens were slower than what we practiced on."

Sergio Garcia, No. 2 behind Singh by more than 12,000 points, was trying to move to the top of the leaderboard until he hooked his tee shot on the 610-yard eighth, where it hit a spectator and kept from going well off the fairway. He hooked his second shot into the rough and wound up with bogey, sending him to a 68.

Garcia and Mike Weir, who is No. 3 and shot 69, played in the same group as Singh. Garcia also played with him in the final round at the TPC Boston, only it wasn't the same Singh.

"He hit more bad shots then he has the last two weeks," Garcia said. "But I've got to focus on one thing. Even if he doesn't do great, I still have to do very well."

The public parking lot was wiped out by the rain, the tournament started a day late under gray conditions, and the gallery still turned out in strong numbers, a tribute to a golf-mad city that hasn't seen this caliber of play since the 1992 PGA Championship, won by Nick Price.

Villegas delivered most of the moments, including a string of four birdies that began with a 40-footer at No. 5 and ended with a pair of tap-ins inside a foot.

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