- The Washington Times - Friday, June 23, 2006

A trio of golf nomads took up residence atop the leader board at TPC at Avenel yesterday. Unlikely heroes Ben Curtis, Jeff Gove and Jose Coceres took advantage of perfect scoring conditions in the first round of the Booz Allen Classic.

“After playing last week, the fairways look like they are 80 yards wide, the greens look huge, so you just kind of free-swing,” said Curtis, who exorcised his U.S. Open frustrations en route to a bogey-free 62, just one stroke off the course record established two years ago by Charles Howell III. “I feel like I’m playing like I did three years ago. I just haven’t put four rounds together.”

Curtis hasn’t put four rounds together since the 2003 British Open, where as a PGA Tour rookie ranked 396th in the world he stunned the golf world by claiming the claret jug in his first career major start. Such outrageous early success seemed to overwhelm Curtis. And after winning at Royal St. George’s, the 29-year-old bottle rocket spent the next two-plus seasons in a PGA Tour free fall.

But Curtis has discovered some consistency this season, making 10 of 14 cuts and clawing up the money list. And yesterday, wearing the garb of his least favorite franchise (Baltimore Ravens) as per his NFL contract with Reebok, the Ohio native and life-long Browns fan threatened the record books on the 6,987-yard, par-71 layout.

Hitting 13 of 14 fairways and 17 greens, Curtis bathed his scorecard in red numbers, surging to 9-under on the strength of a bevy of point-blank birdies that left him one stroke clear of Gove and two ahead of Coceres.

“Who would have thought that [wearing the colors] of my least favorite team, I would have gone on to shoot a career low?” chuckled Curtis, who took over the NFL deal made famous by the late Payne Stewart and will don his Redskins’ gear today.

Gove might consider wearing a Capitals sweater after his striking opener. After missing his fifth straight cut two weeks ago at the Barclays Classic, the 35-year-old Gove returned home to La Quinta, Calif., for some much-needed rest before receiving a slump-busting secret from the most unlikely of sources.

Gove was playing a casual round back home with close friend and ardent golfer Adam Oates, when the one-time Caps captain commented that he was restricting his right hip on his backswing. Gove took Oates’ advice seriously, freed up his right side on takeaway and erupted on Avenel yesterday with a newfound combination of confidence and power.

“It was just like something clicked,” said Gove, who overwhelmed a lone bogey (No. 10) with nine birdies at Avenel, massive, field-mocking drives setting up a buffet of pitching wedge approaches. “I can’t believe I was fighting that hip all these years. It’s really exciting. I hit almost every fairway and almost every green [17], so my ball-striking was really on.”

That’s an understatement. Perhaps most impressive was the way Gove simply manhandled the layout’s three longest par-4s, drives of 326 yards, 327 yards and 335 yards leading to kick-away birdies at Nos. 8, 15 and 16.

“I’m looking forward to the challenge of the next three days,” said Gove, a three-time Nationwide Tour winner still looking for his breakout victory among the big boys. “I’m just going to try and continue to work on my swing key and keep the feel of the greens. … One of the reporters told me this was Fred Couples’ first win. So, those kind of thoughts inspire you and you think, well, maybe this is one of those weeks.”

Coceres didn’t even know he would be in the field this week until last Saturday, when his agent contacted him in his native Chaco, Argentina, and told him to catch the next plane to the States. A longtime European Tour regular, Coceres startled the golf community when he posted two PGA Tour victories in 2001 (Heritage Classic and Disney). But like Curtis, Coceres’ game deserted him after that breakout season. And the 42-year-old has spent the last four seasons sputtering near the bottom of the money list. He became so disgusted with the game last fall that he walked off the course midway through Q-school, returning home to Argentina and swearing off golf to spend time with his family.

Recharged after a long hiatus, Coceres returned to the game this spring, only to find no tournaments willing to grant him a sponsor’s exemption. His status as a former champion has earned him just three starts entering this week’s tournament. But Coceres has made the most of his limited opportunities, tying for ninth at the Heritage and starting this week’s event in style.

“I don’t understand why I can’t get a single sponsor’s exemption as a two-time winner, but I’m going to let my game do the talking for me,”said Coceres after yesterday’s strong opening.

Aside from the strange faces in contention, the theme emerging from yesterday’s opener was the superb condition of the long-maligned course, which drew yet another weak field this year and may well prove to be the temporary death of the event.

“It’s fantastic out there,” said PGA Tour veteran Paul Azinger, who shot a 67 and is doing double duty this week as one of ABC’s color analysts. “If it was like this when they first opened it, you’d have the same field here year in and year out that you get at when they play at Congressional.”

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