Browne takes early lead at Mercedes
By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Ann Miller
KAPALUA, Maui — And they're off.
A handful of the world's best golfers teed off in the first round of the Mercedes Championships yesterday at Kapalua's Plantation Course in the start of a $257 million race better known as the 2006 PGA Tour season.
After the first lap, Olin Browne leads the 28-player field made up of last year's champions with a 4-under-par 69. Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Retief Goosen — all among the top five in the World Golf Rankings — and Padraig Harrington are missing in action, but second-ranked Vijay Singh is alone in second, a shot back.
Two-time defending champion Stuart Appleby, 2002 champion Sergio Garcia, David Toms and Carl Pettersson share third at 71.
The $5.4 million purse here guarantees Sunday's last-place finisher $70,000 — for showing up on Maui and playing golf while staring at the Pacific Ocean. Which explains why Browne celebrated his first appearance here in six years by coming two weeks early.
"I certainly appreciate it tremendously," said Browne, the 2005 Comeback Player of the Year. "I would like to play well enough to be invited back. There's only one way to get back."
He put those words into action yesterday by chipping in on the 13th to go 5-under. His lone bogey came on the 15th — Browne was even-par on the par-5's — when he let his third shot get away.
The breeze and Kapalua's new TifEagle bermuda greens helped Browne keep everyone else at bay. The average score was 74.036, only the fourth time the Plantation has played over-par since the tournament moved here in 1999. Tradewinds greeted the new season by rocking the Plantation at up to 25 mph. The slick new greens, which roll faster and have less grain, were not so much more difficult as simply different.
In that area, Browne might have benefited from his absence. He one-putted eight of the first 10 greens, draining tough par putts of between four and eight feet on the first three that "narrowed my focus in a hurry" and gave him confidence. He missed just one fairway and needed only 26 putts.
"I think everybody's taking a day or two to adjust to the way the ball breaks now as opposed to the way it used to," Browne said. "The way the ball comes into the green with pitch shots and so forth."
Then Browne described how surprised he was that his approach on the final hole did not release more. To make things interesting, Garcia marveled at how frighteningly fast his ball released on the 18th.
"Some of those putts that used to be quick but not that quick, now they're really quick," Garcia said. "For example 18, that third shot into that back pin like we had today, I remember you couldn't get it to the pin the past years.
"Today, if you're on the middle of the fairway, you have to hit a perfect shot, kind of leave it on the top and it runs all the way down to the hole. That's something that never happened here. There's a couple things you're going to get as the week goes on, as you play it more and more."
Singh struggled on the new and improved greens, needing 32 putts, but still had a shot at tying Browne on the final hole. A year ago, Singh led this tournament almost from the moment he teed off, only to triple bogey No. 13 on the final day and fall to fifth.
His disappointment disappeared a week later when he won the Sony Open in Hawai'i. He disappeared last night, preferring not to come in for a press conference because he wasn't leading, but answering a few questions for tour representatives. Basically, Singh said he was "really pleased to get away with 3-under par" and would be back for more.
"Come Sunday, I want to be right in the middle of things," he said. "We'll go from there."
Stuart Appleby bogeyed the second hole yesterday, breaking a streak of 56 straight bogey-free holes at Kapalua. He played the Plantation in 22-under the final three days last year after opening with a 74. Appleby also smacked a 426-yard drive on the 420-yard 12th hole yesterday, two-putting from the back of the green for birdie.
Sergio Garcia, who has been over par in his 13 rounds at the Plantation, continued his streak yesterday with blond streaks in his newly long hair. He, Adam Scott and Tim Clark are all letting their hair grow. "I've never grown my hair much," Garcia said. "It's actually fun just to be able to hold on to something." Garcia wore orange pants with an orange watch, black shirt, hat and shoes that had a metal toe plate.
K.J. Choi, who finished second here three years ago, had five birdies on the front nine but finished with a 75 when he triple-bogeyed the sixth hole and played the back in 4-over 41.
Brad Faxon and Jason Gore tee off first today (11:05 a.m.) after all kinds of first-round frustration. Faxon had four double bogeys in his 82. Gore had to hit three off the tee on the par-4 13th, eventually taking a nine and shooting an 80.
Vijay Singh will defend his Sony Open in Hawai'i title next week in the tour's first full-field event of 2006. Singh has played Waialae Country Club at par or better his last 17 rounds, including 10 rounds in the 60s. He was one of six 40-somethings who finished in the Top 10 last year.
Golf Channel, which featured tips from Kapalua's Jerry King on this week's Academy Live show, will talk with instructor David Leadbetter Monday. Leadbetter will discuss his preparation with Michelle Wie for her professional debut at next week's Sony Open in Hawai'i. Also Monday, on Your Game Night, tips will be given by tour players in Hawai'i.
Reach Ann Miller at email@example.com.