Howell opens with 66; Lefty doesn't break 80

Updated: October 30, 2003, 7:30 PM ET
Associated Press

PALM HARBOR, Fla. -- Charles Howell III decided to play Innisbrook two weeks ago to prepare, then made it pay off Thursday with a 5-under 66 for a one-stroke lead in the Chrysler Championship.

Vijay Singh
Vijay Singh, who can lock up the money title with a win this week, grinded his way to a 1-under 70.

Needing a solid week to secure his spot in the Tour Championship, Howell holed a 35-foot eagle putt on No. 14 and two long birdie putts on his back nine and led after a first round for the first time since the Memorial.

Dan Forsman opened with 12 straight pars and finished strong with four birdies over his final six holes for a 67.

Vijay Singh, who can clinch the money title with a victory this week, hit his approach into 5 feet for birdie on the last hole for a 70, although it was a grind. Singh had to make eight par putts of at least 4 feet, and one bogey putt on No. 12 from about 7 feet.

Davis Love III, also desperate to win to keep alive his hopes for PGA Tour Player of the Year, opened with a 69.

Only two dozen players broke par on the Copperhead course at Innisbrook.

The PGA Tour moved 100 miles down the road to another Florida golf resort, only this is nothing like the courses across the street from Disney World.

The fairways are tight and wind through trees and over water. The rough is vicious in spots, and the undulation on the greens kept the players on their heels.

''You've just got to pay attention on every shot,'' Jerry Kelly said after a 68, leaving him tied with Robert Gamez, Chad Campbell and Jose Coceres. ''Even on your layup shots, there is trouble everywhere. There is really not many gimmes out there.''

Phil Mickelson found out the hard way.

The second-ranked player at the start of the year, Mickelson virtually assured himself next week off from the Tour Championship by hitting into the water and into the trees on his way to an 80, matching his highest score of the year.

Lefty also had an 80 in the final round at Pebble Beach.

He is 37th on the money list and needed to finish at least third this week to avoid missing the Tour Championship for the first time since he started playing a full PGA Tour schedule in 1993.

Howell knew what to expect.

He played Innisbrook in junior golf, but had not been back since. Two weeks ago, he drove over from Orlando to play a practice round on a quiet Friday morning, the way some guys do when preparing for majors.

''The way I looked at it, this is a difficult golf course, and it's worth my time to drive down here and play the golf course,'' he said. ''I enjoy doing that when I can do it. I know a lot of guys do it for majors. Every tournament for me feels like a major.''

Howell got in the hunt with a 3-wood from 245 yards that wound up on the right side of the green on No. 14. He was downhill and with the grain, the kind of putt that tends to trickle some 6 feet past the hole -- unless it goes in.

''I was trying to get the speed right and get the ball close to the hole,'' he said. ''And lo and behold, it was the right speed. It went in the middle of the hole.''

He drove into the water on the 16th and made bogey, then picked up another bogey with what he called ''one of the stupidest course management moves I've ever made.''

Howell hit a 3-iron off the tee on the 455-yard third hole, with water blocking the right side of the fairway, and watched it hop once and take a bath.

''It was such a bad mistake, wasn't even mad about it,'' he said.

Howell recovered with a 40-foot birdie putt on the next hole and then a 35-footer for birdie on No. 7.

He is 27th on the money list, and should be in good shape for the Tour Championship.

Others on various bubbles this week might have to sweat it out.

Rocco Mediate is 30th on the money list -- the top 30 get to Houston for the $6 million tournament -- but appeared to have trouble moving because of back problems and wound up with a 78.

PGA champion Shaun Micheel is right behind Mediate on the money list by $5,656 -- about half of what they pay here for last place -- but could manage only a 75.

Further down the list, Per-Ulrik Johansson (No. 125) shot a 74. Dicky Pride trails him by $654 and was playing in the group behind, but he wound up matching that score.

Pride wasn't wound up too tight.

On the 12th hole, after Olin Browne and Tim Petrovic hit down the fairway about 10 yards apart, Pride's tee shot landed right between their balls. He raised his arms to signal a field goal.

''It's long enough ... it's good!''

Otherwise, it was a grind, but Pride had no problems with that.

''That's what you want,'' Pride said. ''If you're going to put emphasis on the last tournament of the year for all the different things -- top 30, top 125, whatever -- it should play difficult.''

Notes

New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza called Howell on Wednesday night to wish him well. They did a Callaway commercial together and keep in touch. ''He's my favorite baseball player, but I'm prejudiced,'' Howell said. ... Gamez is 44th on the money list and cares mostly about getting into the top 40 so he can return to The Masters. He has not been to Augusta National since 1991, the year Ian Woosnam won.


Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press

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