PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Paul Casey played bogey-free on the tough Copperhead course at Innisbrook for a 7-under 64 to take the lead among the early starters at the Transitions Championship on Thursday.
“The state of my game is going in the right direction,” Casey said.
Casey made back-to-back birdies late in his round to surge past Nick Watney, who is coming off the biggest win of his career last week in the World Golf Championship at Doral. Watney had seven birdies in 12 holes before missing a few greens toward the end of his round and settling for a 66.
John Senden would have joined Watney except for his second hole of the day.
The Australian opened with a birdie and was in position for another on the par-5 11th. But at the top of his swing with a 3-wood from the light rough, he noticed the ball move and couldn’t keep from hitting it. Once he hit his third to the green, he mentioned the slight movement to his caddie and called a rules official. Senden called the one-shot penalty on himself and ended up with a 67.
“I felt like I needed to talk about it because it was bugging me, you know what I mean? And you have to do the right thing with this game of golf, right?” he said.
Defending champion Jim Furyk led a large group at 67 that included Honda Classic winner Rory Sabbatini and Justin Leonard, who believes he is close to ending a two-year victory drought.
For Sergio Garcia, it was his first PGA Tour round in seven months, and he had few complaints. Garcia played bogey-free – that’s right, it’s been since August when he last made a bogey in America – and opened with a 68, as did 17-year-old Matteo Manassero.
Ryo Ishikawa, the 19-year-old from Japan, opened with a 71.
Because of a 70-minute fog delay at the start of the day, three players failed to finish the first round.
The conditions could not have been much better – plenty of sunshine, minimal wind and true greens. The Copperhead course at Innisbrook is among the strongest on the Florida swing, and the tournament has been attracting strong fields.
The gallery was as large as it has been in years, most of them following a featured group of Watney, Bubba Watson, and U.S. PGA champion Martin Kaymer, the No. 1 player in the world making his debut at Innisbrook.
“It’s a fantastic golf course, one of the best I’ve played in America, to be honest,” Kaymer said after a 68. “It’s very difficult. You have to hit a lot of good tee shots.”
Casey made it look easy at times.
He putted for birdie on all but three holes and took only 28 putts in a clean round, which he described as his best ball-striking round of the year. That would include the Volvo Champions in Bahrain, where he won earlier in the year.
Casey wasn’t planning on being at Innisbrook. He won the Houston Open two years ago, but decided to take a few weeks off before the Masters this year.
“If you look at my history in terms of how I’ve played … I’ve always struggled after victories,” he said. “I don’t know why – fatigue, whatever it is. But I’ve performed poorly. So we want to go back to being nice and fresh before the majors.”
Watson had a 70 with a new look – dark sunglasses. He had to withdraw from Doral last week because of a bad sinus infection that caused his eyes to water so much he couldn’t see. Watson blames it on pollen, and says he gets it every year he comes to Florida.
“I got into Doral this year, so it started a week early,” he said.
He wore the sunglasses to help keep the pollen from getting in his eyes, although he took them off to hit shots. It was a different look for the big hitter with the pink shaft in his driver.
“I look good in anything,” Watson said.
Nobody could see anything in the morning, with fog so thick that play was delayed more than an hour until the sun burned it off. It was unlikely everyone could finish the first round.
Watney showed no effects from the hangover of winning at Doral. He was so tired on Tuesday that he stopped after five holes of his practice round, but he came out firing when the tournament began.
“The ball just seemed to be going where I was looking, which is a really good feeling,” he said. “I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I started off great, and kind of ran out of steam there at the end.”
Ryuji Imada said he would donate $1,000 for each birdie he makes at Innisbrook this week to the American Red Cross Japanese Earthquake and Pacific Tsunami fund. He didn’t make any in the first round and shot 74.