Logjam at the Top at Players

By Mercer BaggsMarch 27, 2003, 5:00 pm
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Rocco Mediate will never have his gallery confused with Tiger Woods following. But Thursday morning, while many were in tow with Tiger, about 15 or so people watched Mediate earn a share of the early first-round lead.
 
I had to pay most of them to come, but its no big deal, Mediate joked.
 
Actually, those on hand were friends and family. Mediate, like Vijay Singh and David Duval, is a resident in the Ponte Vedra Beach area who plays this course about 15 times a year.
 
We definitely have a slight advantage as far as visuals, but that doesnt equate in unless you can perform, Mediate said about having local knowledge.
 
Whatever the edge, Mediate used it to his favor Thursday, shooting a bogey-free 68. He is tied with Skip Kendall, Bob Tway and Jay Haas for the clubhouse lead at 4-under par.
 
Rain, which caused a 30-minute delay to the start of the round, finally delivered on its day-long threat to return, bringing a halt to play at 5:00 PM ET, with 68 players on the course. They will resume the first round at 7:30 AM Friday, with the second round starting at 8:30.
 
Kevin Sutherland is also at 4-under through 16 holes. Fred Couples, the 1984 and '96 champion, was in sole possession of the lead at 5-under before bogeying two straight holes to fall to 3-under. He has four holes to remaining in his round.
 
'Tomorrow is a big day,' said Couples, who has suffered with a bad back throughout his career.
 
'To come in, sit for an hour and a half and go play four more holes could kill me, so this is good,' he said of the suspension. 'Once I get in the groove tomorrow -- to play 22 holes is nothing physically.'
 
This tournament has been plagued by inclement weather over the last three years.
 
Rain suspended the first round a year ago, pushing it into Friday. It also forced a Monday finish in 2000 and 2001.
 
Kendall, Tway and Haas are each hoping this week will carry them into the Masters Tournament. The top 50 on the Official World Ranking and the top 10 on the PGA Tour money list following this week will quailfy for the season's first major.
 
Kendall, who is 51st in earnings, needs to win in order to go to Augusta. Tway can do slightly worse than that, being 31st on the money list. Haas is in the best shape at 15th in earnings and ranked 56th in the world.
 
'I'm going in with the attitude that if I play well that could happen. I don't think it would ruin my year if I don't,' said the 49-year-old, who last played the event in 2000. 'One of my goals at the start of the year was to someday again play the Masters.'
 
Two-time reigning Masters champion Woods is four back after birdieing two of his final three holes for an even-par 72.
 
The way the conditions are, even par or better today is a good solid round, said the 2001 winner.
 
Woods is fresh off his third victory of the season. He won last weeks Bay Hill Invitational by 11 shots, despite playing the final round under a constant downpour and with food poisoning.
 
Woods was healthy Thursday ' though he said he is still in search of six pounds he lost because of the virus ' but his game was a bit pale.
 
I wasnt hitting the ball as clean as I had been, hit a couple of blocks, couple of pulls, just never really got it on track. But I made some good putts just to keep myself in it, he said.
 
He started by making back-to-back bogeys at 4 and 5, missing the green at both.
 
He was in danger of falling to 3-over when he escaped with a par at 10. He flew a 7-iron from 176 yards, into the wind, over the green. He then pitched eight feet past the hole, but made the comebacker.
 
Ten was big, he said. I knew I needed to bury that putt because if I could get that putt in and then bury the next, all of a sudden Ive gotten back to even par.
 
He wasnt quite able to do that. He missed his 18-foot eagle attempt at the par-5 11th, but still tapped in for his first birdie of the day to get to 1-over.
 
He gave it back, however, with a bogey at 14. After driving into the rough, his approach shot fell short of the green, 40 yards from the hole, from where he was unable to get up and down.
 
At the par-5 16th, Woods pulled his second shot left of the green. Faced with an uneven stance, he pitched to 10 feet and made the birdie.
 
He did the same at the par-3 17th, but in much easier fashion. Woods simply knocked his 142-yard tee shot to three feet.
 
Looking to complete the closing trifecta, he misplayed his approach shot to the wrong side of the putting surface at the par-4 18th.
 
I missed it on the steepest part of the slope, he said. I had that putt in the practice round and I wasnt able to keep it on the green.'
 
He still two-putted from 40 feet.
 
I didnt want to play that well coming in, get it back to even par, make a three-putt and end up over par, he said.
 
Mediate played well from start to finish. In fact, he combined with Tway and Kendall to record 13 birdies to just one bogey.
 
Tway, on the other hand, made only eight pars along the dangerous layout, recording seven birdies and three bogeys.
 
It played pretty difficult today with the wind blowing, Tway said. I think the only thing that kind of saved us is the fairways are soft and pretty receptive.
 
Thats because of the penal four-inch rough.
 
The guy whos going to win is going to drive his ball in these fairways, said Mediate, who didnt put much credence in leading early.
 
The beauty of our game is youve got to do it for four days and if you dont, this day is worthless, he said.
 
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