Nick Watney Out to Early Lead in Hawaii


2007 Mercedes Benz ChampionshipKAPALUA, Hawaii --Opening day on the PGA TOUR was filled with oddities, starting with Nick Watney leading the Mercedes-Benz Championship on Thursday with a 5-under 68 that featured only one bogey amid a mixture of sunshine and rain.
Newcomers are supposed to be at a disadvantage on the Plantation Course at Kapalua with its mammoth greens and severe grain, but Watney kept it simple and poured in enough putts to take a one-shot lead over Daniel Chopra and get his 2008 season off to a good start.
'I think maybe they say that because the greens are very grainy,' Watney said. 'I think for me personally with the green, if I don't know what a putt is going to do, then I'll just play grain. So it worked out today.'
It didn't work out for most of the winners-only field.
Brandt Snedeker was in the lead most of the round until he hit what he thought was the perfect tee shot on No. 17. Imagine his surprise to see his ball in the waist-high native grasses, some 100 yards behind Steve Stricker. Turns out his driver had a hairline crack in the top of the face, which played a big part in his double bogey-bogey finish that sent him to a 71.
Scott Verplank was at even-par 73, rattled by a ruling he continued to dispute after his round that cost him a double bogey on the 13th and made him think more about his pre-shot routine than how to play the shot.
With his ball positioned on the slope of the fairway, the wind gusting some 30 mph in his face, his ball moved about a quarter-inch. Verplank did not think he had addressed the ball, but after a discussion with rules official Mike Shea, he was told he caused the ball to move. Verplank played a second ball in protest, but lost the argument after his round.
Tour officials were trying to find video evidence after the round.
'I don't agree with it,' Verplank said. 'I know right from wrong. I know what happened. If I felt I did anything to make that ball move, give me a penalty. At the time, I didn't think I did anything to make it move.'
Steve Stricker rallied from a rough start, playing the final 10 holes in 3 under for a 73. But he had a tough time with his new umbrella, which caused his hands to be too slick to grip the club. He wound up grabbing the umbrella by its shaft.
The craziest part of all was the weather.
Sunglasses quickly gave way to umbrellas as a mist sprayed the lower portions of the Plantation Course, and players had a tough time walking into the wind and up the hills. Worse yet, the damp weather continued to make the 7,411-yard course even longer, and it showed. Stephen Ames flushed his driver on the downhill, 550-yard 17th hole (a par 4), then had to hammer a 3-wood to clear the ravine. Paul Goydos had 215 yards left for his third shot on the 676-yard closing hole.
Some vacation this is turning out to be.
Goydos and Boo Weekley were the only players who failed to break 80, although Weekley saw this coming. He hadn't played much golf in the last month and figured he would be closer to shooting 82 and than 72. 'I was close,' he said as he walked inside to sign for an 80.
There were plenty of beautiful views, as always, including the surfers that could be seen from 11th green. Weekley, who much prefers a rifle or fishing rod to a surfboard, wanted no part of that.
'If I showed up out there, they'd think I was a whale that got beached,' he said, rubbing his belly.
U.S. Open champion Angel Cabrera was among three players at 70, while Snedeker and Mike Weir were another shot behind. Only 10 players managed to break par in the wind and rain, and Vijay Singh wasn't among them. The defending champ opened with a 74.
Despite his bad break, Snedeker was pleased with how he played. He had a relapse of the flu when he arrived and was feeling so dizzy that he had a doctor prescribe some steroids -- drug testing doesn't start until July 8 -- to help him get better.
But the tee shot on No. 17 stunned him.
'I thought I hit it flush. I thought it was maybe a gust of wind,' he said. 'But when I got up to the next tee, I saw the crack. So I had to hit 3-wood, 3-wood and 8-iron on the 18th. It's a stinky way to end a round of golf.'
Verplank wasn't happy with how his situation turned out, especially since Rory Sabbatini didn't feel a penalty should have been called. They talked with rules official for 20 minutes after the round, although he kept his sense of humor.
'How many FedExCup points is that going to cost me?' he said.
Explaining the situation later, the Oklahoma State alum and close friend of football coach Mike Gundy said the penalty wouldn't affect him the rest of the week.
'I'm a man!' Verplank said, making fun of Gundy's famous rant from the season. 'I'm 43.'
There were a few other light moments on a tough opening day, and some poignant ones at the start. Clifford Naeole, the Maui cultural adviser at Kapalua, offered a traditional Hawaiian blessing on the season, which was followed by a stirring rendition of the national anthem on the ukulele by Jake Shimabukuro, one of the best in the world on an instrument that defines Hawaii.
Joe Torre, the new manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers who spends January in Kapalua, was the honorary starter. All he had to do was call out the lineup, not hit a shot, which was probably a good thing. The Plantation Course, which got 16 inches of rain in one week last month and about 4 inches this week, played longer than ever.
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