Each week there are always a few from the list above that don’t fire in Round 1. This week is not the exception as Stenson (74), Finau (74), McIlroy (74) and Spieth (76) did not pay off for investors on Thursday.
People’s Choice: Sergio Garcia
It looks like the #NappyFactor supporters are out in full force this week, and I’m on board as well. Garcia’s nous and ability to work the ball sticks out on difficult courses and the Copperhead Course more than qualifies. His opening round of 70 was one of 20 pros at -1 and included four circles against three squares without any “others”. The leaderboard today, similar to the parking lots and galleries, is packed tightly.
Corey Conners has appeared in this column a couple of times over the early part of the new season, so his name shouldn’t be unfamiliar to the regulars here. He opened with 67 (-4), the lowest round of the day, and was perfect until a bogey on his final hole. His key stat was ranking second in Strokes Gained: Putting. He’s made cuts in nine of 10 starts but the rookie’s best finish is just T29.
Whereas Conners has never played this event, Nick Watney is more than comfortable on the Copperhead Course. He’s cashed in all of his previous 10 tries. He signed for the low round of the afternoon wave, 68 (-3), and that will put him in an excellent position to keep that perfect record intact. He’s posted five consecutive rounds in red numbers after his T14 last year. The key to his round today was sitting in the top 10 for both fairways hit (T9; 10 of 13) and GIR (T8; 12 of 18).
Weather Report Suite
The Copperhead Course played brutally difficult to open the proceedings. The greens are still growing in after being completely regrassed after the 2015 edition and are playing firm. The grain in the TifEagle Bermuda also makes for plenty of second-guessing on speed of putts. Throw in blustery and gusting winds and the field couldn’t hit 50 percent GIR. Even with four par-5 holes, there wasn’t much scoring throughout the afternoon with only 27 players breaking par. There were six pros that didn’t make a birdie today, including Ryder Cup studs Stenson, Ian Poulter (78) and Ross Fisher (76). Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth each made one. The course played +1.861 strokes above par. #Hard.
The Tiger Factor
The interesting question entering this week was how Tiger Woods would fare on a course he hasn’t played in over 20 years. His opening round 70 (-1) was under par and in his words, the hardest test of his season to date. He’s three shots off the lead and wasn’t near hitting top gear. His trusty flat stick ranked third in putts-per-GIR. The harder it plays, the better his chances as nobody grinds out rounds like he does.
I’m still trying to figure out how Sam Burns (T28, E) beat Woods by two shots two Sundays ago at The Honda Classic. He’s been the exception rather than the rule of Woods’ playing partners. I argued that the more experienced players could handle the circus but Stenson and Spieth didn’t keep up today. Stenson’s 74 was only his second round above par from 13 rounds and his worse by two. Spieth opened with 76 here last year and bounced back for 68. Last week he opened 70-67, so he’s a quick fix. Of his last nine rounds here, five are in the 60’s. I’m not panicking with either of these studs.
Worry? Who Me?
I’m trying to find angles to embrace as Rory McIlroy looks to get back into the top 10, let alone the winner’s circle. It’s not like he’s forgotten how to play the game but gamers are starting to wonder when the switch is going to flip. He teed it up three weeks in a row in February and never went lower than 68 and had more rounds above par than below it. This is his first trip to Innisbrook, and I thought a change of scenery and difficult track would be right up his alley. His opening round 74, with only six fairways and seven GIR, was saved by his ability to get up-and-down. He needed 14 putts on the seven greens he hit but just 12 on the 11 he didn’t. Please hold me.
For those of you who are invested with Bryson DeChambeau (No. 13 overall), it was mentioned during the broadcast that his back was bothering him. His opening round 76 didn’t inspire. … Kevin Na withdrew before his tee time in the afternoon wave. There are plenty of you who were pinched today that shouldn’t be tomorrow. … Jimmy Walker (69) and Luke Donald (70) signed the only clean cards on the day. Harold Varner III didn’t make a bogey, but his double disqualified him from joining this duo. Walker and Donald combined for 33 pars and three birdies. … Emiliano Grillo continues his very temperate form, as he’s the leader at the Hero Indian Open in New Delhi after 65. …