Stefani among few to solve Snake Pit
PALM HARBOR, Fla.
Last year’s opening round of the Tampa Bay Championship, then called the Transitions Championship, saw nine scores of 66 or better, including a tournament-record 10-under-par 61 by Padraig Harrington.
But thanks to cool temperatures and breezy conditions for much of Thursday’s first round, Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead course played much tougher this time around. Only 25 players shot under par, 13 of those shot in the 60s and only one shot better than 67. That player was first-round leader Shawn Stefani, who fired a 6-under 65 playing in the third-to-last pairing of the afternoon.
Here are Five Things you need to know from the opening round:
1. Not that Stefani
With an opening-round 65 in difficult conditions Thursday on the Copperhead course, Shawn Stefani could be beginning to make a name for himself.
That would be a good thing considering he might not have to hear about singer Gwen Stefani as much.
“There’s a few people out here that call me Stefani and some people call me Gwen,” said Stefani, whose surname actually is pronounced like Stephanie.
Jokes aside, Stefani put together the most impressive round of the day at Innisbrook. His score included six birdies and no bogeys, and he played the infamous “Snake Pit” in even par. Pretty good for his first competitive round on the Copperhead.
“I love the golf course,” Stefani said. “(It) fits my eye a little bit. It’s tree-lined, it’s long, it’s difficult and I like golf courses like that. And it just was a good day for me.”
That it was, and it tied his lowest career round on the PGA Tour, too. He shot 65 in the second round last week in Puerto Rico.
Stefani, a 31-year-old who turned pro in 2005 out of Lamar, made his ninth PGA Tour start Thursday. He qualified for the 2009 US Open but missed the cut. He has made three of his four career cuts this year after earning his card thanks to a sixth-place finish on last year’s Web.com Tour money list.
Before that, he spent time bouncing around between Monday qualifiers and the mini tours, mainly the Adams Pro Golf Tour and the Hooters Tour, now called the NGA Tour.
“It’s just a matter of time, everybody kind of goes and hits their strides differently,” Stefani said. “I’m more of a patient kind of guy and just kind of wait for things to happen.”
2. Bulldog buddies
The University of Georgia is well-represented near the top of the leaderboard.
Brian Harman, a 2009 graduate, is solo second after a 4-under 67 while 2011 grad Harris English is tied for third after shooting an opening-round 68. The pair played a season together at Georgia, leading the Bulldogs to the semifinals of the 2009 NCAA Championship. Both players received second-team All-America honors that season.
“Harris is probably my best bud in the whole world,” said Harman, who lives in St. Simons Island, Ga., in close proximity to English’s residence in Sea Island, Ga. “We are kind of attached to the hip out here. . . . I’m glad to see him playing well.”
Said English: “We’re great friends and play a lot of practice rounds together.”
Although the two didn’t play the practice round together this week, they had similar success, especially on the greens. Harman made 23 putts, including nine one-putts and a pair of no-putts. English had eight one-putts, but a three-putt for double bogey on No. 18 ran his putting total to 29.
“I was in total control of my game today,” said English, who has Steve Stricker’s caddie, Jimmy Johnson, on the bag this week. “It was a little breezy, (but I had) really good speed on the greens today, which kept me in it. . . . I know double on the last hole kind of hurts, but I’ll be back tomorrow and, hopefully, keep it going.”
Before English’s double on No. 18, and Harman’s bogey on his final hole (No. 9), the Georgia natives held a share of the lead at 5 under through 17 holes.
“I just didn’t miss in any bad spots and stayed real patient,” Harman said. “I had a couple things go my way, and I hung in there real well. Made bogey on the last (hole), but still felt like I made the right decision on the second shot.”
Harman was referencing his approach at No. 9. With the wind blowing, he debated between hitting 6- or 7-iron out of the rough. He knew if he got ahold of the 6-iron, it could potentially miss long, so he opted for 7-iron, hitting it in the front greenside bunker. A bad lie in the sand led to bogey and dropped him out of the lead.
“Some bad stuff is going to happen out there, it’s just how you handle adversity,” said Harman, who called the round his “best-thought-out” round of the season so far.
Although Harman is relatively unfamiliar with the Copperhead course — he shot 74-69 and missed the cut last year in his only other start at Innisbrook — English has had some past success on it, winning the 2011 Southern Amateur.
“It’s an old-school golf course and we don’t play too many of them out on the PGA Tour,” English said. “This is the kind of golf course I grew up on: Bermuda greens, tight fairways, you've got to work the ball off the tee a little bit, and I’ve had some success here, so it definitely helps.”
3. Donald's defense
Few players in this year’s field have enjoyed more success at the Tampa Bay Championship than Luke Donald.
Not only is the World No. 3 the defending champion of the event, but he’s also made the cut in all four tournaments he’s played on the Copperhead course. Seven of his 16 rounds have been in the 60s, including a 5-under 66 in last year’s final round to help him secure a spot in a four-man playoff, which he won with a birdie on the first extra hole.
Donald nearly added an eighth sub-70 round Thursday, playing the first 14 holes in 4 under before three bogeys in his final four holes left him with a 1-under 70.
“Very solid round,” said Donald, who started on No. 10. “I really had the ball under control for 16 of the holes, but hit a couple poor shots down the stretch. . . . I feel extremely disappointed right now because I walk off with a 70 and play that well. It’s hard to take.”
Donald’s troubles began at the par-4 sixth hole, where he drove it left into the trees and had to lay up, eventually making bogey. After a par at No. 7, Donald’s tee shot at the par-3 eighth hole went right and came to rest in the rough just above the top of the right greenside bunker.
Donald delivered a solid flop shot to about 10 feet — one that sent him down into the bunker on his follow through — but he missed the par attempt. He closed his round with a missed par putt from the fringe on No. 18, having sent his approach long and then chipped past the hole with his third shot.
“To finish like that, it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth,” Donald said.
Despite the poor finish, Donald was pleased with his work on the greens. He and coach Pat Goss, who was in attendance Thursday, worked on Donald’s putting setup prior to this tournament.
“(I’m) seeing more (putts) go in the hole, which is a good sign,” said Donald, who totaled 29 putts, including seven one-putts, Thursday.
“A lot of positives today and (I’m) excited about trying to build off those for tomorrow.”
4. Good fun
It has been an exciting week so far for David Skinns.
Not only is Skinns playing in his first PGA Tour event, but he also won a playoff Tuesday morning to Monday qualify for his spot in the field at Innisbrook, and held the lead for a brief time on Thursday before finishing with an even-par 71. He’s tied for 26th going into Friday.
Skinns chipped in for birdie on No. 18 at Fox Hollow Golf Club on Monday morning to wrap up a 4-under 68, which would put him in a three-way tie for third.
“I figured I had to because I knew 3 under probably wasn’t going to be enough,” said Skinns, a seven-time winner on the NGA Tour who made six of eight cuts on the Web.com Tour in 2012, including three top 25s.
After Andrew Pope earned the third qualifying berth with a birdie on the second playoff hole, Skinns and Garrett Osborn battled it out for the final spot until it got too dark to play. They had to resume the playoff Tuesday morning in the rain, and on the first hole, Skinns made an 18-footer to secure his first PGA Tour start.
Skinns got off to a good start Thursday. He was 3 under after 10 holes, holding a share of the lead after his birdie at the par-4 first hole. But he bogeyed No. 2 and then three of his last five holes to drop back to even.
“I played all right, a couple of bad breaks at the end, but it was good fun,” Skinns said. “It’s a little bit different of a situation for me and I’m not exactly used to it yet, but I enjoyed it.”
5. Short shots
• K.J. Choi, playing with Donald and Jim Furyk on Thursday, fired an opening-round, 2-under 69. He was 4 under through 11 holes. A two-time winner of this event, Choi is also the tournament’s all-time money leader ($2,208,575).
“This course is very similar to (courses in) my country in South Korea. . . . It’s more comfortable (for me) here,” said Choi, who is tied for sixth.
• Furyk, who was one of three players to lose in last year’s playoff to Donald, carded a 1-over 72. Robert Garrigus and Sang-Moon Bae, the other two players Donald ousted in extra holes a year ago, finished with a 1-over 72 and 2-over 73, respectively.
• The “Snake Pit,” also known as hole Nos. 16-18, took a toll on the field Thursday. Nos. 16 and 18, both par 4s, each yielded a 4.263 scoring average in Round 1, combining to produce 76 bogeys, 14 double bogeys and one score of triple bogey or worse. The par-3 17th produced a 3.263 scoring average, giving up 43 bogeys and a pair of double bogeys. Matt Kuchar played the “Snake Pit” in 4 over, making double bogey on Nos. 16 and 18 to limp in for an opening-round 72. A winner on tour already this year, Michael Thompson, played the three holes in 3 over and finished with a 77.