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Azinger Rides Surprising Start to First-Round Lead

For the first time this year, Thursday was kind to Paul Azinger. Not only was his 6-under-par 66 his first sub-70 first round of the season, it was also good enough to give him the first-round lead in the $6 million Players Championship.
Thanks to birdies over his first three holes and eight straight pars to close the round, Azinger was able to grab a one-shot advantage over Scott Hoch, Jonathan Kaye and Vijay Singh.
Thats a nice start for a change, said Azinger. Ive played really great on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and then been frustrated with the starts to all of my tournaments.
Such was not the case this Thursday. A noted low-ball striker, Azinger didnt need to navigate the wind in Round One. In relatively benign conditions, Azinger was able to record six birdies to nary a bogey.
His round began with a 25-foot birdie putt on the 1st. Following two more birdies on hole Nos. 2 and 3, Azinger used his mid-length putter to guide in a 35-foot birdie on the par-4 8th. A sand wedge to four feet at the 9th closed out his front nine in style with a 5-under-par 31.
Another birdie at the 10th moved Azinger to 6-under, where he finished the day after eight consecutive pars.
The course is drying out just a little bit, you can tell from the front nine to the back, Azinger said. Today, I was determined not to let my start affect how I felt or change the way I did things, and as it turned out, maybe that freed me up a little bit.
While the greens were softer than normal and the wind more of a breeze, the course was hardly there for the taking. A thick rough and tucked pins protected the course from a birdie assault.
Anything under par today is good, said Nick Price, who shot 70.
That proved to be a difficult task, as only 36 of the 141 players managed to break par in Round One.
That group did not include Tiger Woods, who was 2-under-par through 17 holes before he found trouble on the par-4 finishing hole.
Tiger tried to smooth a 3-wood around the banana-shaped fairway, but laid the shaft down and flipped it. The result was a hook into the water. He carded a double bogey 6 to finish with an even-par 72.
This was the 16th time in 17 professional rounds on the Stadium Course that Woods has failed to break 70. Still, Woods was in a much better mood than when he tripled bogeyed the penultimate hole in the first round of last weeks Bay Hill Invitational and marched off the premises without talking to the media.
I thought I played beautifully today, said Woods. Unfortunately, I didnt get a whole lot out of the round. I played great - putts just didnt go in.
Overall, Im very pleased with the way Im hitting the golf ballwell see what happens.
Last week, Woods won at Bay Hill while staying in his residential home in Orlando, Fla. Two weeks ago, Jesper Parnevik commuted from his home in Jupiter, Fla. to win the Honda Classic.
Now, Singh is trying to make it three in a row.
The 38-year-old Fijian lives just five miles down the road from this weeks venue in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Thursday, he avoided the pitch-out rough by hitting 13 of 14 fairways - which led to 15 of 18 greens hit in regulations and 29 putts taken.
If you drive the ball in the fairways, youve got a lot of chances to make good approaches to the green, said Singh, whose 67 was his lowest score in 33 career rounds at The Players.
I played conservative in the beginning; but when I had my chances, I took it. Im really excited about it.
Despite the close proximity to his house, Vijay said he doesnt play the Stadium Course very often; though he does use the driving range quite extensively.
Still, the fact that he doesnt have to order room service is a definite advantage.
You can go home. Eat your own food. Thats very important, Singh said. If you have a family at home, youre very comfortable in your own environment, so I think it helps a lot.
Should Singh prevail this week, he might consider giving a share of the $1,080,000 first-place prize to Azinger. It was the latter who first introduced the former to his current flatstick.
Vijay asked me at the (2000) Memorial what I was doing and if he could borrow my putter to hit some putts on the putting green, and I said, Sure, go ahead, Azinger recalled.
Singhs been using it ever since.
Azinger first tried the device, which locks into the players belly button, at the end of 1999. Lo and behold, the first time he used it competitively on the PGA Tour he won.
It improved me, Azinger said of the putter. I havent putted very well this year, at all, until Sunday at Bay Hill. So its not foolproof by any means, but it helped me. Im just happy it improved me.
Azingers victory at the 2000 Sony Open in Hawaii was his first Tour title in seven years. It was also the first time he stepped into the winners circle following his victory over lymphoma.
From 1987 to 1993, Azinger won at least once every season. In 93, he won three times, including the PGA Championship.
Then cancer struck. After missing the majority of the 94 campaign, Zinger returned to the Tour fulltime in 1995. It would take five more years before he would add his 12th PGA Tour trophy to his mantle.
Youd better be aware that one day youre The Man and the next day you are going to walk by all those press guys and they are not even going to look at you. I lived it for years.
2000 was a season of redemption for Azinger. Aside from his victory, he collected nearly $1.6 million in earnings and was a captains selection for the victorious U.S. Presidents Cup Team.
For me, last year I played pretty well, and I got, you know, I got my share of interviews last year to feed and stroke my little ego, he joked.
Azinger knows hes close to reclaiming his spot as a bonafied major contender. A win this week would ensure it.

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News, Notes and Numbers
*David Duval (wrist injury) and Chris Perry (stomach ailment) withdrew prior to their first rounds. Tommy Armour III withdrew after nine holes after injuring his hand.
*In his first 14 Players appearances, Scott Hoch missed seven cuts and withdrew twice. In his last six starts, Hoch has finished inside the top-20 on every occasion, including a runner-up finish in 1997.
*Thursday, 19 balls landed in the water on the 137-yard par-3 17th. Only 23 birdies were recorded in the first round.
*The first-round scoring average of 73.372 was the highest on the PGA Tour this year. It is the seventh highest first-round average in 19 years at this event.
Full-field Scores from The Players Championship