DORAL, Fla. – Charl Schwartzel managed to get around the famed Blue Monster course without a bogey on his way to a 5-under 67 and a one-shot lead Thursday on a rough-and-tumble day in the World Golf Championship event.
Schwartzel, who got into the elite field with two victories in his native South Africa at the start of the season, had five birdies in a mistake-free round.
Not so fortunate were Ernie Els, Robert Allenby and Vijay Singh, all of them poised to claim a share of the lead or better until they stepped to the tee on the 443-yard closing hole at Doral that was playing into a wind strong enough to knock the caps of some players.
Singh was in the lead until hitting his tee shot into the water and making double bogey, giving him a 68.
Els was tied for the lead until his approach around the palm trees came up short and into the water. He scrambled for a bogey and also wound up with a 68.
Allenby, who had a five-shot lead early in the round when he was at 8 under through 12 holes, finished with four straight bogeys, the last one when he blasted out of a back bunker and saw his ball roll off the green and nearly into the water. He had 68 and found perspective quickly.
“That’s the way things go,” Allenby said. “If someone had said you’re going to shoot 4 under today, I would have taken it.”
Schwartzel could not have agreed more.
The south Florida wind, which gives the Blue Monster its fangs, was gusting when the 68-man field teed off and only relented late in the afternoon. Schwartzel got the toughest part of the course – No. 18 – out of the way early because he started on the back nine. He was among the few players who made par on a hole that averaged 4.65 strokes, which was higher than three of the par 5s.
“I didn’t think 67 was out there at the beginning of the day, with the wind as strong as it was,” Schwartzel said. “Early on, I made five birdies, which I thought you could do, especially with three par 5s being downwind. Some of them you’re hitting wedge. The big achievement for me today was not making any bogeys. That kept the scorecard very clean.”
Francesco Molinari of Italy was tied for the lead until he went into the water and made double bogey, giving him a 69 and putting him in the group that included Pebble Beach winner Dustin Johnson and Paul Casey.
Luke Donald had one of five birdies on the 18th, holing a bunker shot, and was in a group at 70 that also featured Padraig Harrington, Jim Furyk and Martin Kaymer.
Defending champion Phil Mickelson, who was in Houston last week while his wife was treated for breast cancer, did not arrive until Wednesday night and spent the morning shaking off some rust. Mickelson, who had two drivers in his bag to negotiate the wind, was pleased with his opening 71.
“I know it’s not in contention yet, but my goal was to shoot something solid and improve on it each day. So I have to go lower each day,” Mickelson said.
Tee times were moved up Friday with storms in the forecast for the afternoon. The threat that figures to remain all week is the finishing hole, one of the toughest on the PGA Tour.
“Today, it was almost like a par 5,” Singh said.
Formerly No. 1 in the world, Singh has not won since the end of the 2008 season when he captured the FedEx Cup. He finally showed signs of getting healthy when he tied for fourth last week at the Honda Classic. And even with a double bogey to end his round, he found plenty of optimism for the rest of the week.
“I think I swung the club better today than I did all week,” Singh said. “Making a double on the last, it doesn’t leave a good taste in your mouth. But you know, thank God it’s on Thursday.”
Despite his four straight bogeys, Allenby couldn’t figure out where he hit a truly bad shot. It started on the par-3 15th, when he posed over a 6-iron and figured he had come up short. Allenby and his caddie stood toward the front of the green, looking in the wiry rough for his ball when Lucas Glover called out, “It’s back here.”
The ball had gone through the green and was suspended by thick grass framing the bunker. He pitched to 6 feet and missed for his first bogey, unaware that three more were going to follow – a flier out of the rough on 16, the edge of a bunker and a short miss on the 17th, and scrambling for survival on the 18th.
Schwartzel was surprised to look at a leaderboard and see Allenby slip from 8 under to 4 under in four holes. And it made the South African appreciate what he had accomplished for the day.
“I played a lot of good rounds in my career, and yeah, this one rates right up there,” Schwartzel said. “It could even be at the top. You couldn’t miss a shot.”