Coming off a missed cut Villegas starts strong

By Associated PressFebruary 6, 2009, 5:00 pm
2006 Buick InvitationalSAN DIEGO ' The shot was worthy of a much louder celebration.
 
Camilo Villegas was in a bind on his second hole of the Buick Invitational, hitting his tee shot to the right and leaving himself some 50 yards to the hole with a bunker limiting his view to the top portion of the flag. With a new 63-degree wedge, he hit a perfect flop toward his target and wound up with an eagle.
 
My caddie said, It went in. Early in the round, not much of a reaction, Villegas said.
 
There wasnt much of a crowd at Torrey Pines on Thursday, when Villegas tied his personal best with a 9-under 63 on the easier North Course to build a three-shot lead over Davis Love III and Aaron Baddeley. Across the way, Phil Mickelson patched together enough great par saves for a 70 on the South Course that put him in good shape.
 
One reason for the thin gallery was the absence of the four-time defending champion, Tiger Woods.
 
Now that might be reason for Villegas to celebrate.
 
The 27-year-old Colombian picked up his first PGA Tour victory last year in the BMW Championship, where Woods was the defending champion but unable to play because of his season-ending knee surgery. A week later, Villegas won in a playoff at the Tour Championship, where Woods also was the defending champion.
 
The Buick Invitational is the third straight PGA Tour event that Woods is not able to defend.
 
Is it any surprise to see Villegas name atop the leaderboard?
 
Its very early in the week, Villegas said. I mean, I played one round. I played great today.
 
Even so, this is one place none of the players particularly miss the worlds No. 1 player. Woods is the four-time defending champion of the Buick Invitational, with six victories in all, that doesnt include the U.S. Open he won last summer at Torrey Pines, a public course that he has turned into a private playground.
 
Im glad hes not here, Villegas said. He plays pretty good around here, I can tell you that.
 
Villegas didnt fare too badly himself, although it will take another round to sort out the real contenders. Few other courses have such a disparity in scoring'the South hosting a U.S. Open and stretching over 7,600 yards, the North a pedestrian 6,915 yards with hardly any rough to punish errant shots.
 
The average score on the North was 71.73, while the South played to an average of 75.37.
 
Thats where Villegas is headed on Friday, with rain that began falling late Thursday afternoon in the forecast the next two days. He realizes he could face thicker rough, firmer greens'and he doesnt seem the least bit bothered.
 
Who knows, man? he said. Just go out there and hit some shots.
 
British Open and PGA champion Padraig Harrington played in the same group with Villegas and tried to keep pace early, making three birdies on the opening four holes. But his round unraveled on the 17th hole, when he four-putted for double bogey and wound up with a 71.
 
Love hung with the Colombian, too, finishing with three birdies over the final five holes for a 66'same as Baddeley, playing alongside him. It was a good start for Love, who is No. 58 in the world ranking and needs to stay in the top 64 after next week at Pebble Beach to qualify for the Accenture Match Play Championship.
 
The ultimate goal'next to winning'is to get into the top 50 after March to qualify for the Masters. Thats a lot of math, but the only numbers Love cares about at the moment are what he puts on his scorecard.
 
Its hard not to watch it, but I know that if I continue to do the things Im doing, the ranking will keep continuing to improve, Love said. Im just going out and trying to play to win and not play to try to get to 58th. I just keep trying to work my way up.
 
Stuart Appleby was in the group at 68, but the names worth noting at 69 included Scott Sterling and Matthew Goggin, simply because they toiled on the South Course.
 
And there was Mickelson, of course, who was pleased to start with a 70 on the South.
 
He has a new driver this week'compared with his last start at Torrey Pines for the U.S. Open, when he had no driver'but the putter is what saved his round, especially on the par-5 ninth hole at the end of his day.
 
Mickelson hit his driver off the fairway with hopes of running it up toward the green for a simple up-and-down for birdie, only to see it sail to the right and into the face of a bunker. He blasted out to another bunker by the green, again in a bad lie, did well to get it onto the putting surface 15 feet away, and he wound up with a par.
 
It wasnt the smartest play there, he said. I should have hit 3-wood down there and taken 6 out of play. But thats what happens. I was fortunate to walk away with par.
 

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