LOS ANGELES (AP) — The wind rattled through the eucalyptus trees at Riviera, the temperatures were starting to fall, and K.J. Choi rarely looked so comfortable. It helped that he was only on the practice range, having finished a bogey-free round in the Northern Trust Open that left him atop the leaderboard.
“I think a lot of the players are probably having a little bit of a difficult afternoon,” he said Thursday.
Choi posted his 6-under 65 in cool breezes, giving him a one-shot lead over Kevin Na, and no one came close to catching him.
David Toms was trying to close in at 3 under until three bogeys over the final five, frigid holes dropped him back to even-par 71. Kevin Sutherland was at 4 under and freezing, taking off his rain jacket to hit shots, putting it back on to stay warm. He took bogeys on consecutive holes, unable to master the distance to firm greens with the wind at his back.
Geoff Ogilvy felt the wind in his face on the third, fourth and fifth holes, which run west toward the ocean. Then he got the seventh tee to head in the opposite direction, and the wind was still in his face.
“Not possible,” he said after a hard-earned 69. “The whole front nine felt into the wind.”
The guy who got it right was Dustin Johnson, the best of the PGA Tour rookies the first two months of the season. He was at 3 under and on the 16th tee, the sun already gone, when he asked when officials were going to suspend play for darkness.
“You have to keep going,” one of the caddies in his group said.
“Yeah,” Johnson said with a smile. “But I can take my time.”
He wound up hitting a wedge to the center of the green, and the horn sounded a few minutes earlier. Johnson chose to mark his ball and will join 16 other players who were to finish the first round Friday morning.
This is one time players were happy to get off the course without finishing, primarily because it was so cold.
Rarer still was Choi seeing his name atop the leaderboard on a course that has frustrated him over the years. He has played the last seven times at Riviera, and only once has he finished in the top 20.
“This course, I’ve always had trouble putting and my iron shots have always been a problem,” Choi said. “But I felt like they were working today, and I think even the weather was pretty pleasant when I played. So it all worked out good.”
Chad Campbell and Vaughn Taylor were at 67. Phil Mickelson took a 30-minute commute by plane from his home north of San Diego and opened with a 68, dropping a shot on his final hole when his drive found the bunker and left him unable to reach the green.
Sergio Garcia, among several international players making their ’08 debut on the PGA Tour, opened with a 74. Adam Scott shot 73, while Retief Goosen shot 42 on the front on his way to a 79.
Choi is No. 9 in the world ranking, and he got there by winning tournaments hosted by Jack Nicklaus (Memorial) and Tiger Woods (AT&T National) over the last ninth months, along with the Sony Open in January.
The real indicator might be playing well at Hogan’s Alley.
Riviera is where Ben Hogan won the Los Angeles Open and the U.S. Open in 1948. It is firm and fast this year with recent dry weather, and it showed on some of the greens, where the ball sprung forward upon landing and made it tough to get close to the pin.
Choi usually struggles at Riviera in any conditions. But he worked on his game last week instead of playing Pebble Beach, and while he was still confused over the breaks on various putts, his final assessment would have made Yogi Berra proud.
“Shooting 6 under, you can’t be sad about that, so I’m very happy,” he said.
John Daly was atop the leaderboard at times during the morning and finished with a 69, which might have been better had he not taken a tour of the barranca that divides the eighth fairway. But for a guy whose season is defined by initials – one MDF, one WD, two MCs – he had few complaints.
“It’s nice to finally get off to a decent start,” he said.
Daly’s only paycheck this year came at the Sony Open, where he was among 18 players who technically made the cut but was not allowed to finish (also known as MDF). He withdrew from the Bob Hope Classic and missed the cut at Torrey Pines and Pebble Beach. This was only the second time in 11 rounds this year that he broke 70.
Mickelson didn’t mind his start either, even if it ended badly.
Los Angeles is the only city on the West Coast Swing were Lefty has never won, although he came close last year. Needing a par on the last hole to win, he hit a poor chip and made bogey, then lost to Charles Howell III in a playoff.
Putting hurt him at Pebble Beach, along with that 11 on the 14th hole that sent him home early, although Mickelson said he wasn’t overly concerned, and that showed in the first round at Riviera.
“If I can putt like that, I should have a good chance on the weekend,” he said.
“Today, it was close,” he said of his game. “The putter felt good. If I can putt like that, I should have a good chance on the weekend. And if I start to eliminate a couple of misses like that drive on No. 9, hitting in the bunker and stuff like that, I should be able to put together some good rounds. I’m looking forward to the next three days.”