Watney grabs early lead as Tiger withdraws from Players Championship

Nick Watney shot a 64 and missed tying Greg Norman's course record by one stroke.
Chris O'Meara/AP

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Nick Watney could have brooded over his missed cut at the Wells Fargo Championship last week, but instead flew to Jacksonville on Saturday for a bit of extra work in advance of the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass. He recalled playing a practice round with Ernie Els at the Masters earlier this year in which Els said he'd won two of his three majors the week after missing the cut.

With that trivia top of mind and buoyed by his extra preparation, Watney made nine birdies and an eagle en route to an 8-under 64 and a one-shot lead over Lucas Glover after round one of the Players on Thursday.

Playing in ideal scoring conditions in the morning — warm, calm, with plenty of moisture still in the greens — Watney made birdies on his first three holes, 10-12, and birdies after his two mishaps, a double bogey on 14 and a bogey on eight.

"Well, I'm kind of proud of that, actually," Watney said of his refusal to buckle after his gaffe on 14. "Because last week in Charlotte I got off to a bad start and I never really righted the ship."

Glover, who won the Wells Fargo in a playoff Sunday, was close behind after making eight birdies against only one bogey.

"Yeah, I'm a confidence guy," said Glover, who had fallen off the radar after his 2009 U.S. Open win. "I think everybody is to some extent."

Mark O'Meara, 54 years old and in the field only because of his victory at the Champions tour's 2010 Senior Players Championship, was the story of the afternoon. He rolled in a long birdie putt on 18 for a 66 and was in third place, two back, with 44-year-old David Toms.

"It's never easy," O'Meara said of competing with men 20 and even 30 years younger than him. "...Even when I went to dinner with Tiger last night, my wife, Meredith, said, 'How's Mark hitting it?' He says, 'Short.' Okay, yeah, I'm not 32 and strong, but I hit it far enough."

O'Meara hit nine of 14 fairways and took only 24 putts. No one would have predicted a decade ago that he would now be in better physical condition than his old friend, Tiger Woods. Paired with Martin Kaymer (67) and Matt Kuchar (69), Woods shot a front-nine 42 and withdrew with injuries to his left leg. His status for the U.S. Open, June 16-19, is uncertain.

"I don't know," Woods said of his prognosis. "I just finished. Give me a few days to see what the docs say, and we'll take a look at it."

"I was shocked, to be honest with you," O'Meara said. "I turned on my phone this morning and saw he got off to a poor start. I don't know what happened. I just saw that he was 4- or 5-over through six holes, and I'm like, wait a minute, I just played with him [Wednesday] morning and he played great on the back nine."

Phil Mickelson had an up and down round that included a chip-in eagle on the par-5 11th hole, followed by a tee shot that found the green but trickled into the water on the par-3 13th, leading to a double-bogey. He shot 71.

"I hit an 8-iron to the middle of the green," Mickelson said of 13. "I don't know what to say. I don't know if it's the setup or the design, but I just don't agree with that. I thought the question was would it stay on top and be by the hole or was it going to roll down to the low area. I didn't know it could possibly go in the water. I think when I design golf courses I try not to screw the player like that. I try to keep it a little bit fair."

Mickelson faulted himself, too, saying he lost focus while missing a putt from inside four feet on the eighth hole, and three-putting the 10th. He said he got too tentative in missing a four-foot birdie try on 16.

"I'm disappointed with myself and my focus throughout the round today," he said. "I can do better than that."

Fredrik Jacobson, Rory Sabbatini, Graeme McDowell, and Alvaro Quiros joined Kaymer at 67, three back of Watney, the winner of the WGC-Cadillac Championship in March. His 64 was his best round at Sawgrass by four shots; he missed the cut in two of his previous four starts here, with a career best T17 last year.

Greg Norman's 63 in 1994 was the lowest first round at the Players.

Watney birdied five of his last seven holes for a front-nine 30. His shot of the day: a holed bunker shot for eagle on the par-5 second hole.

"I've played here enough times that I really didn't want to short-side myself on that second hole, so I hit a decent [second] shot, but it went in the right bunker," he said. "That was one of the things I worked on this weekend is my bunker shots, and it paid off."

Two-time Players winner Davis Love III and Ben Crane each shot 68 in the morning, and J.B. Holmes matched them in the afternoon.

Crane's tee shot on the island 17th hole ricocheted off the wooden pilings behind the green and soared over the water and into the crowd, from where he played his second shot. He got his second shot onto the putting surface and high-fived a few fans, but bogeyed the hole. He bogeyed the 18th, too.

The first-round leader or co-leader has gone on to win just three of 19 stroke-play events on Tour in 2011, and Watney led last year's PGA through 54 holes before falling apart in the final round. That collapse was preceded by Dustin Johnson's meltdown at the U.S. Open and reenacted by Rory McIlroy at the Masters last month. Watney, though, is older than those players, having turned 30 on April 25. And he's a quick study: After losing a hard-fought battle at Doral in 2009, Watney came back to win there this year.

"I think every one of us will do better the next time around," he said.

He may get a chance to prove it Sunday.

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