Watney seizes Players lead

Nick Watney has shrugged away last week’s missed cut and seized the first round lead at The Player’s Championship.

American Nick Watney has shrugged away last week’s missed cut and fired a spectacular 8-under 64 at the unforgiving Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass to grab the first round lead at The Player’s Championship.

This on a day dominated by the news that Tiger Woods had been forced by returning left leg injuries to limp off the course after just nine holes with a 6-over 42 to see his hopes of catching, matching and besting Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 majors starting to recede into a no-longer, clear-cut future.

The beleaguered and clearly frustrated 14-time major winner shot his first-ever Players triple-bogey on the fourth hole along with bogies at the 1st, 5th and 9th holes before opting out with pains from lingering knee and Achilles tendon injuries and a cramping calf that were making it “difficult to walk”.

Without the World No 1 and sixth-ranked players Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy, it meant that a tournament, often referred to as “the Fifth Major, was now without three of the World’s Top 10 ranked golfers.

In the meantime, Watney and fellow American Lucas Glover, still playing with the beard he wore in his a playoff win at the Quail Hollow Championship on Sunday, and this time just a shot off the pace in sole second place, might have given the impression of a changing of the guard in US golf but for US veterans Mark O’Meara, a 54-year-old two-times major winner, and David Toms, who were tied for third, just two off the pace on 66s.

Watney was as delighted as he was surprised to be sitting as high up on the leaderboard as he is.

“If you were looking at last week, you would expect Lucas to shoot seven under but you wouldn’t expect me to shoot eight under,” he said. “I guess that’s what is so great about our game and now I am really excited for this week.”

Watney, who won the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral in March, teed off on the 10th and birdied his first three holes before a three-putt double-bogey on the par-four 14th slowed his momentum.

But the 30-year-old didn’t let it worry him and all too soon had hit back with an eagle on the par-five second and five more birdies with a second bogey taking away only a little gilt from his glittering round.

“I was definitely disappointed (by his missed cut last week), but I figured there were two ways to react, you either sulk about it or come here,” he said.

“Flew here on Saturday, and did a little bit of work on Sunday, when I would have rather have liked to have been playing, obviously. But just figured I’d get on with it and use it as motivation.”

German world number two Martin Kaymer, the reigning PGA Champion and one of a few here who can overtake Westwood in the rankings this week, was three shots behind Watney in the four-way tie at 5-under with South African Rory Sabbatini, Swede Fredrik Jacobson and Britain’s Graeme McDowell, the reigning US Open champion.

McDowell was especially pleased with his opening round: “I had a great weekend on the range with Pete Cowen and felt the light switch go on. This is the start of a really good summer. hopefully.”

A month away from his US Open defence, the Northern Irishman, who had missed three of his four previous cuts, produced an eagle at the 16th and then holed a bunker shot at the sixth to finish the opening round at Sawgrass three behind Nick Watney

England’s Luke Donald, another who can go to No 1 this week, was also handily placed after a three-under 69.

Kaymer said: “I played so much more solid than I did last week when I had to think about every single shot. Today I just played and let it go.”

The German who was grouped with Matt Kuchar and Woods, said: “I was more focused on my game to see if he (Woods) was in pain. He hit a few good shots, but a few that were bad.

“Obviously it’s very sad for us – it would have been another 27 holes with him and he pulls the crowd. We can just hope he gets well soon.”

Donald went bogey-free but said: “I didn’t have my best game today. I made some great par saves, and sometimes you’ve got to kind of gut it out a little bit, and I did that today pretty well.”

Three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson also has the chance to go to number one this week, but has a mountain of work to do after a roller coaster 71.

The Worlds best left-hander was three-under after a chip-in eagle at the 11th, but made a double bogey at 13 where his ball ran off the green and dropped into the water, and parred in from there to finish the day seven off the pace.

Londoner Brian Davis topped the leaderboard for much of the morning before finishing with a 68 while Ian Poulter and Justin Rose both shot 70s.

Padraig Harrington had back-to-back sixes at 11 and 12 to undo some earlier good work and a bogey at 18 left him at one over.

Top 10 leaderboard

64 Nick Watney

65 Lucas Glover

66 Mark O’Meara, David Toms

67 Rory Sabbatini (Rsa), Graeme McDowell (NIrl), Fredrik Jacobson (Swe), Martin Kaymer (Ger), Alvaro Quiros (Spa)

68 JB Holmes, Ben Crane, Davis Love III