Mickelson two back after first round

Updated: March 4, 2004, 7:51 PM ET
Associated Press

MIAMI -- The Blue Monster's signature hole has teeth again. And they're sharper than ever.

Just about everyone struggled on the beefed-up 18th hole in the first round of the Ford Championship at Doral on Thursday.

Chris Smith was 9 under after 17 holes, but closed with a double bogey for a 7-under 65 and a one-shot lead over Joe Durant.

Phil Mickelson, Retief Goosen and Scott Verplank were two shots back. Smith, Mickelson and Verplank all found the water on the par-4 18th.

The finishing hole played into a strong wind and finished with a scoring average (4.74) higher than three of the Blue Monster's four par-5s. It was easily the toughest hole on the PGA Tour this year and is on pace to be the tour's most difficult hole over a four-day period since 1990.

"Five is not necessarily a bad score there, four is a very good score and three is like stealing one," said Durant, one of only six players to birdie the hole. "It's a very demanding tee shot. There's not much room to bail out."

Smith hit a perfect drive on No. 18, but pulled his second shot into the water left of the long and narrow green.

His fourth shot landed well past the hole, and he two-putted from there. It was his only real costly mistake of the day.

"It was probably the toughest shot I had to hit all day," he said. "But it's not going to ruin my night."

Smith opened the round with an eagle, then birdied eight of the next 12 holes to move to 10 under through No. 13 -- five shots better than anyone else. He gave a stroke back after finding a fairway bunker on No. 16 and then had the poor second shot on No. 18.

"What's exciting to me is that I finally had a round that I felt like things kind of came together," said Smith, whose only PGA Tour victory came in the 2002 Buick Classic. "I made some good putts, and I was rewarded for some iron shots that I hit."

Doral's signature hole was lengthened 24 yards after last year's tournament, when players hit short irons and wedges into the long, narrow green. Even tightly sheared rough sloping from the left side of the green to the lake did little to deter low scores in 2003.

The once-feared 18th -- long one of the tour's toughest closing holes -- ranked 323rd last year with an average of 4.104.

Now the 467-yard hole could provide plenty of excitement down the stretch Sunday.

"They've added the length and they haven't done anything to the green, so it's a double-whammy almost," said Nick Price, who made par at 18 and shot a 72.

Others weren't so lucky.

Seventy-seven players in the 144-man field shot over par, including 44 bogeys, 31 double bogeys and two others. Brent Geiberger carded a snowman (8) and immediately withdrew. Arjun Atwal took a 7.

"If the wind blows like that again, I'll just lay up off the tee with an iron and play it like a par 5," Mickelson said.

In 1996, Doral hired three-time tournament champion Raymond Floyd to put some bite back in the Blue Monster to counter falling scores. Floyd not only lengthened the course by 186 yards, he installed dozens of bunkers.

Scoring rose the next two years, but players fumed and began skipping the first stop on the tour's Florida Swing. A year later, Doral-based golf instructor Jim McLean was called upon for a "softening" and trucked out seven acres of sand.

Doral turned to McLean again last year as a consultant to the changes. They installed five new tees that stretched the Blue Monster by 141 yards.

No. 18 clearly had the biggest impact Thursday.

"It's night and day from last year what they did to that hole," said Kenny Perry, who bogeyed No. 18 to finish at even par. "It's an animal. Whoever wins Sunday is not just going to walk away with the win. They're going to have to earn it."

Divots: Seve Ballesteros withdrew before the opening round because of a back injury. Ballesteros has not made a cut in the United States since the 1996 Masters, and he hasn't made a cut in a regular PGA Tour event since he tied for 37th in The Players Championship in 1995. ... The winner of the Ford Championship at Doral will get a Ford GT. Priced just under $140,000, it is the most expensive car awarded on the PGA Tour. ... Goosen has shot par or better in his last 26 rounds on the PGA Tour. "To keep going on about the same thing is boring."


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

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