First Posted: 3/14/2013
PALM HARBOR, Fla. — Shawn Stefani is the latest PGA Tour rookie to look comfortable on a big stage.
It just took him a little longer to get there.
In breezy conditions on a tough golf course, Stefani never came close to making a bogey until his final hole Thursday in the Tampa Bay Championship. He rolled in a par putt from just inside 5 feet to complete a 6-under 65 and take a two-shot lead over Brian Harman.
“Kind of fought through a couple of bad shots coming in — or not so great shots — and managed to get balls up-and-down and make a few putts,” Stefani said. “So all in all, today was a great day and looking forward to getting out there tomorrow.”
There’s not many “bad” shots in a bogey-free round on the Copperhead course at Innisbrook, which some consider the best track on the Florida swing. The course played just more than two shots over par. Only 13 players broke 70, and 25 players broke par.
Harman came up short and into a bunker on the ninth hole and closed with his lone bogey for a 67. Harris English finished on the 18th and also hit into a bunker, except that he three-putted from 40 feet above the hole and had a double bogey. That gave him a 68, tied with Brendan Steele and Tag Ridings.
Geoff Ogilvy, at No. 49 in the world and needing to stay in the top 50 the next three weeks to get into the Masters, was in the large group at 69 that included Lucas Glover and Vijay Singh and K.J. Choi.
Stefani is a 31-year-old from the Houston area who finally made it to the PGA Tour by finishing 16th on the Web.com Tour money list. He is playing new courses and staying in unfamiliar places, though he had at least a few examples of other rookies this year to show the way.
Russell Henley won the Sony Open, and another rookie (Scott Langley) played with him in the final group. Three others have played in the final group this year — Brad Fritsch at Torrey Pines, James Hahn at Pebble Beach and Luke Guthrie two weeks ago at the Honda Classic.
“It’s great to see those guys play well, because I competed with those guys all last year and they all won — except Scott — on the Web.com last year a few times and they are all super nice guys, good players,” Stefani said. “Everybody hits their strides differently. I’m more of patient kind of guy, and just kind of wait for things to happen. I know eventually things will start clicking, and I’ve really been close to playing good all year.”
Defending champion Luke Donald opened with a 70 and was angrier than usual, a testament to the course. Donald was poised to open with a great round, at 4 under with four holes to play despite missing three birdie chances inside 12 feet.
A poor drive led to bogey on the sixth. His tee shot on the par-3 eighth rolled toward the back lip of a bunker. And then a flier out of the rough on No. 9 sailed over the green and into a slope in the bunker with very little sand. That made for three bogeys in four holes, and turned a solid round into a frustrating one.
“At one point I felt I should have been 5 or 6 under,” Donald said. “To walk off with a 70 and play like that is hard to take. It was shame to cough up a couple of shots. Fifteen of those holes, I played really solid golf.”
Some of the early starters arrived in darkness, the temperatures cool and the wind already blowing.
This hasn’t been the best weather on the PGA Tour this year. Already there was such high wind at Kapalua that the tournament didn’t start until the fourth day. Fog wiped out an entire day in San Diego. Snow put the Match Play Championship one day behind. And temperatures were in the 40s early Sunday when the tour first arrived in Florida.
“It felt more like a major championship today,” Steele said. “Usually the head at the U.S. Open is a few under after the first round at least, even if the winning score ends up being over par. To see it only be 3 under at this point is really a testament to how good the golf course is and how difficult the conditions are. Put that combo together and it’s not a course that you fake it around. It’s not a course you can get away with bad shots.”
Stefani did very little wrong.
With the wind at his back, he hit wedge into 2 feet for birdie on the 10th hole to start his round. He made birdie on all four of the par 5s with a short game that he practiced for two solid days earlier in the week.
Chinnarat Phadungsil leads Avantha Masters
GREATER NOIDA, India — Chinnarat Phadungsil of Thailand made eight birdies on the back nine Thursday to shoot an 11-under 61 for a five-stroke lead in the first round of the Avantha Masters.
He missed a long putt on the 17th that would have made it nine consecutive birdies for the former world junior champion. He is the youngest winner on the Asian Tour after capturing the Double A International tournament in 2005 at 17.
The leader was followed by a group of five at 6 under, including compatriots Chapchai Nirat and Chawalit Plaphol.