Field can't keep up with Jones

Posted: Friday, March 25, 2005

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. : There's more than the Big Four at The Players Championship.

Vijay Singh matched his best start ever on the TPC at Sawgrass. Phil Mickelson lit up the tame course with seven birdies inside 4 feet, only to give away five strokes with shots that went under trees and under water.

Tiger Woods stalled. Ernie Els never got going.

''Then along came Jones,'' said former U.S. Open champion Steve Jones, who stole the spotlight with an 8-under 64 in the lowest first-round scoring at Sawgrass in nine years.

The Players Championship had its share of surprises Thursday, none bigger than Jones, who dabbled in commercial real estate last year when he thought an elbow injury might end his career, winding up atop the leaderboard.

''Dig up the archives here,'' said Fred Funk, who joined Zach Johnson and Lee Westwood at 65.

Funk was only slightly startled when his caddie looked at the leaderboard and noticed that Jones had just completed a bogey-free round at 64, one off the course record.

''I go, 'Steve Jones shot 8 under? Where did he come from?''' Funk said.

Last seen riding around in a cart as an assistant captain at the Ryder Cup, Jones made seven birdies in eight holes on a TPC at Sawgrass course that was so soft that the fairways could not be mowed.

An elbow injury kept him away from competition all of last year. He hasn't won since 1998.

''Eight birdies, no bogeys. That's a good thing, right?'' Jones said, showing he hasn't forgotten everything about life on the PGA Tour.

Maybe it was just a coincidence that first-round scoring at Sawgrass (71.87) was the lowest since 1996, the year Jones won the U.S. Open at Oakland Hills.

''I think he's healthy now,'' Singh said. ''He's no mug. He can play.''

Singh continued to show the best form of the Big Four, matching his best start ever at The Players Championship with a 5-under 67 that was highlighted by two good par saves in the middle of his round and a mammoth tee shot on the 18th that set up a birdie.

The others broke par, but couldn't keep up with Jones. Mickelson and Woods had a 70, while Els was at 71.

It was the first time all four of them broke par in the first round.

Big deal.

Sawgrass has rarely been this soft and still, and it showed in the low scores. Even the island-green 17th, the most daunting par 3 in golf, played under par.

Three players holed out from the fairway for eagle, as the pins were cut in accessible positions.

''They're all pretty much the easiest pins we'll see,'' Mickelson said.

It was no surprise that 87 players were at par or better, and 29 players were in the 60s.

Westwood had a chance to join Jones at the top until he missed a 5-foot birdie putt on his final hole, the par-5 ninth.

Sergio Garcia was among those at 6-under 66, although the 25-year-old Spaniard was slightly disappointed after ripping a 3-wood from 281 yards over a tree and onto the green at the ninth, where it rolled by the hole to about 8 feet. He missed that eagle putt, and missed a 3-footer for birdie on No. 4.

Jones thought his career might be over when he suffered a severe elbow injury two years ago. His health returned, but it wasn't until a recent conversation with Hale Irwin that Jones decided to kick it into gear. He wouldn't divulge details of the motivational speech, but the gist was to stop complaining and go to work.

''I've felt that something was going to happen soon,'' Jones said.

The birdies came in bunches : seven of them in an eight-hole stretch, including putts of 25, 40 and 50 feet. The most important might have been the shortest, when his tee shot landed in a divot on No. 4, leaving him a delicate 90-yard shot over water to a front hole location.

''I could have complained about it, but I said, 'You know how to hit this shot.' I just choked way down on a pitching wedge ... and I hit it a foot,'' Jones said. ''That was a big turning point.''

Singh cared only about a good start, not that he was three off the lead. He has lost on the final hole each of the last two weeks, but got into Sunday contention after having to recover from indifferent starts.

''It's nice to start off a tournament in contention for a change,'' Singh said. ''Normally, I'm chasing. Five under is a good start for me.''

Nabisco Championship

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. : Rosie Jones had a bogey-free 3-under 69 to share the first-round lead of the Nabisco Championship with Karen Stupples and Mi Hyun Kim.

Jones, who is retiring at the end of the season, has 13 wins in a career that began in 1982 but no major victories. She played in the morning when the wind was calmer and finished her round with a flurry, hitting a 7-iron to 2 feet on the final hole for a finishing birdie.

Stupples, who won the British Open last year, had five birdies and two bogeys in the opening round, while Kim had four birdies and a bogey.

Teenagers Michelle Wie and Morgan Pressel both shot 70, and so did Annika Sorenstam, who is trying for her fifth tournament win in a row.

Sorenstam eagled the par-5 second hole and was 3 under through four holes, but played the rest of the way 1 over as the wind picked up at the Mission Hills Country Club in the season's first major tournament.

Wie had the early lead before stumbling on the par-3 17th hole when she hit a 7-iron short and then missed a 5-footer after chipping up for her only bogey.

Indonesia Open

JAKARTA, Indonesia : Colin Montgomerie, needing a victory to assure himself a spot in the Masters, was five strokes off the lead after a 3-under 67 in the first round of the Indonesia Open.

India's Arjun Atwal and Northern Ireland's Michael Hoey shared the top spot with 62s on a day when play was delayed two hours because of lightning. South Africa's Chris Williams and England's Matthew Cort were at 63.

Montgomerie had a frustrating day on the greens, bogeying two par-3s and missing several birdie chances. The Scotsman has not missed a Masters since his Augusta National debut in 1992.

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