Villegas Takes One-Stroke Lead in Honda Classic


Camilo Villegas fired a 6-under 64 to take the lead through 18 holes of the Honda Classic. The $6 million PGA Tour stop began Thursday on the Champion Course at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

Villegas, a 31-year-old with three career wins - with his most recent title coming in 2010 at this tournament, started out slow, with only one birdie and eight pars on the front nine. But on the home half, the Colombian warmed up, adding three more birdies and an eagle on the par-5 18th to go a stroke up on South African Branden Grace, Canada's Graham DeLaet, and Americans Robert Streb and Rickie Fowler.

A few years ago Villegas was one of the game's top up-and-coming players. But he missed 10 cuts in 25 starts last year and lost his Tour card. After failing to regain his card in Q-School, he's playing on limited status in 2013 and could use a win to ensure his immediate future on Tour.

"You just somehow got to be strong with the mind and keep grinding," Villegas said of his mental approach during this tough personal period. "You know you belong out here, you know you're good enough, and you also understand that the game of golf is a game of ups and downs. You've just got to be strong on those downs and keep working hard.

"I just played bad the last year and a half. It's a little reality check, nothing wrong with that. It gives you a little bite to come back and be who you know you can be."

The 24-year-old Grace, who got the attention of the golf world with four victories last season on the European Tour, posted seven birdies - including four straight to close out his round - and two bogeys. Though he had never played a competitive round at the Champion course, Grace knew about the famous "Bear Trap," a difficult three-hole (Nos. 15-17) stretch that includes a par-3, par-4 and par-3, each of which he birdied Thursday.

In preparation for the Honda Classic, Grace asked fellow South African Charl Schwartzel about the Champion course's vaunted "Bear Trap" at last week's WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, where Grace was ousted in the first round by Robert Garrigus.

"(Schwartzel) said, 'Listen, the four finishing holes are quite a beast out there,' " Grace told PGATour.com. "So I was a little bit nervous coming here, and today I thought just, you know, what's going to happen around that corner?"

Boo Weekley, Sean O'Hair, Dustin Johnson, Fabian Gomez, Billy Horschel, Lee Westwood, Ben Kohles, Doug LaBelle II, Brian Stuard and Seung-Yul Noh of South Korea all posted 4-under 66s.

Weekley was involved in the strangest incident of the day. Teeing off in one of the early groups, Weekley helped remove a water moccasin on the fifth green that was alarming marshals and spectators. The native of Milton, Fla., and a frequent hunter who's shown up in PGA Tour events wearing camouflage clothing, scooped up the snake and dropped it into a nearby water hazard.

"If it would have been hotter, somebody could have stepped right by and been bit by him," Weekley told reporters. "He blended in perfectly with the grass, wasn't but about 18 inches long, but he was good enough that he could have bit you and hurt you pretty bad."

The two marquee players in the field, No. 1-ranked Rory McIlroy and No. 2 Tiger Woods, carded even-par 70s, with each posting two birdies and a pair of bogeys.

McIlroy is the defending champion after fending off Woods, who fired an 8-under 62 in the final round but fell two shots short of catching the 23-year-old Northern Irishman, who ascended to the No. 1 ranking in the world following his victory last year.

After inking a new equipment contract with Nike that will pay him a reported $250 million over the next 10 years, McIlroy has struggled in his first starts of the year with the new clubs. He missed the cut in the European Tour's Abu Dhabi Championship right after the equipment switch in January and, last week as the overall top seed, was beaten in the first round of the WGC-World Match Play Championship by 64th-seeded Shane Lowry.

McIlroy said he was encouraged by his improved play Thursday. "I felt like it was closer than it had been," he said at greenside. "There was enough positive signs to feel better . . . I definitely think I can get my level (of play) up with practice."

He then noted about his current approach, "I guess it's hard to commit to the shot that you need to play every time. So if you should play a fade and you're not comfortable with it, it's hard to do. So just a bit more work on the swing to try to get a bit more comfortable with that and I should be OK. But I felt like I hit the ball OK today, not as good as I can, but it's getting there."

Woods was happy with his work off the tee and iron shots, but lamented missing opportunities on the greens. "I played really well today - hit a lot of good shots but didn't make anything," he said. "It was a pretty much a boring day on the greens."

And he told PGATour.com, "I hit good putts. I was getting fooled on the grain; some of it was snagging, some I would blow right through the top side. The green speeds are a little bit faster than they were (Wednesday), but it's an adjustment I need to make."

Charles Howell III, who beat Woods in the first round of the Match Play Championship, was among 14 players posting 67s Thursday. That group included Hank Kuehne, who's had a difficult time with back problems the past six years.

The winner in last week's Match Play Championship, Matt Kuchar, is taking the week off.

For all the scores, visit http://www.pgatour.com/tournaments/the-honda-classic/leaderboard.html.


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