'My first top-10 finish on the PGA Tour was here in 1992 during my rookie year,' Hayes said following a first-round 65. 'I've always liked coming back.'
At 5-under-par, Hayes shares the 18-hole lead with Steve Pate, Robert Damron, Sean Murphy and Cameron Beckman.
Beginning at the 10th, Hayes went out in 1-under-par 34, but carded four birdies over his inward half to post his lowest aggregate score since the first round of the Honda Classic in March.
This is the first time Hayes has been near the top of the leaderboard since the PGA Championship. Hayes, whose only Tour victory came at the 1998 Buick Open, was just two shots off the 54-hole lead, but fired a final-round 76 to tie for 19th.
Hayes is currently 48th in earnings, thanks in large part to a pair of top-3s at the Honda Classic and the Greater Milwaukee Open. If he can cash the $540,000 first-place check on Sunday, he will jump inside the top 30 on the money list and, more than likely, qualify for the Tour Championship.
'Beyond that, it really doesn't make much of a difference I guess, except for the Invitationals,' said Hayes. 'I've got the top-70 locked up.'
The top 70 at season's end automatically qualify for the Bay Hill Invitational and The Memorial Tournament.
While Hayes vies for a spot in the season's final event, Beckman and Murphy are battling for their 2001 playing privileges.
Murphy, who is the tied with Matt Gogel at the top of the all-time Buy.Com win list with six, is 156th on the 2000 PGA Tour money list. Beckman stands in 149th place. The top 125 at season's end gain their 2001 Tour card.
Murphy began the year with a tie for sixth at the SONY Open in Hawaii, but missed the cut in 20 of his next 29 starts, including a stretch of 11 in a row.
Beckman missed the cut in his first seven starts this year, however, four consecutive top-30 finishes have kept alive his hopes of breaking into the top 125.
Neither Beckman nor Murphy has won on the PGA Tour; they would like to follow David Duval's lead and make this event their first. Thursday, Duval started slowly, but finished strongly for a 1-under-par 70.
Beginning at the 10th, Duval bogeyed three of his first four holes. The 1997 Michelob champion made the turn in 2-over-par, but birdied the 3rd, 7th and 8th holes for an inward half of 3-under-par 33.
This is Duval's second start since an ailing back sidelined him for ten weeks. He won last week's Buick Challenge at Callaway Gardens Resort in Pine Mountain, Ga. It was Duval's first Tour win since the 1999 PLAYERS Championship. It was also his 11th triumph since his maiden victory in Williamsburg, Va., three years ago.
Notah Begay has a lot of ground to make up if he wants to successfully defend his Michelob title. The defending champion opened in 5-over-par 76. His round included a pair of double-bogeys.