Tiger Woods, the defending champion who is trying to pick up some additional victories in his bid to be named PGA Tour Player of the Year, posted a 3-under-par 67 and is tied for fourth place with K.J. Choi.
'The golf course is playing very difficult out there. The fairways are obviously a little bit on the narrow side and the rough is up,' said Woods, who won this tournament in 1999 and 2002. 'Because I haven't played in a month, I was nervous on that first tee. I'm still trying to get that ball in play somehow, and I did.'
Woods is in the middle of the Player of the Year hunt and for the first time since 1999, he is not the clear-cut favorite.
'It all takes care of itself if you just play well,' said Woods, referring to the Player of the Year race. 'It's in the back of your mind but when you're out there playing, you just play.'
Among the other top contenders, Masters champion Mike Weir posted a 1-under-par 69 and is tied for eighth place with Loren Roberts, Jyoti Randhawa, Peter O'Malley, and NEC Invitational winner Darren Clarke.
U.S. Open winner Jim Furyk and tour money leader Vijay Singh each fashioned rounds of even-par 70. Davis Love III, a four-time champion in '03, struggled to a 4-over-par 74.
Garcia is not among the contenders for the year-end award as he has battled through swing changes throughout the 2003 campaign. He owns one top 10, a tie for fourth at the Buick Classic, and ranks 103rd on the money list.
'I really feel like when I'm on, I don't think there's many guys out there that can hit it better than me,' said Garcia. 'I knew it was going to take some time and it was going to be hard, but I think in the long run, it's going to be good.'
Garcia wasted little time in breaking into red figures as he ran home a 15-footer for birdie at the second. At the par-3 sixth hole, Garcia knocked a 6-iron to 10 feet to set up his second birdie of the front nine. Garcia holed an eight-footer for birdie at the ninth to make the turn at 32.
At the par-5 12th, Garcia lost his drive in the right rough, where he pitched out to the fairway. He hit a lob-wedge from 114 yards to 10 feet and converted the birdie try.
He broke out of the logjam at 4 under at the 17th. Garcia nailed a 330-yard drive down the fairway and hit his second to 11 feet. He sank the birdie putt and held on to sole possession of first at the last when he rolled in a tricky four-footer.
'It definitely has started well, so hopefully we'll keep it going,' said Garcia. 'Hopefully, I'll keep playing as well as I played today and we'll see what happens.'
Herron also started quickly on Thursday with a six-foot birdie at the first and a 45-footer for birdie at the second. He parred his next nine holes but once again tallied back-to-back birdies at 12 and 13 to move into second place.
Herron has enjoyed one of his best years on tour in 2003. He collected three top-4 finishes in the first two months of the season, then tied for 14th at the PGA Championship and added two more top-5s in his next two events.
'I'm getting comfortable being up there again,' said Herron. 'I had a couple of years where I was kind of struggling. You lose your confidence, but my confidence has come back. I feel like if I hit the ball well, I putt well, and there's nothing really to stop me. I just have to stay out of my own way.'
Mediate, who took most of the summer months off, was 4 under on his front nine but mixed a pair of birdies and bogeys on his second nine to join Herron in a share of second.
'I just drove it into most of the fairways, and that's the whole key,' said Mediate. 'I mean, otherwise you're dead. There's no playing from the rough.'