Friday, March 20, 2009

PALM HARBOR, FLA. (AP) - Jim Furyk started the season worried about rust.

When he failed to win last season on the PGA Tour for only the third time in the last 14 years _ making him ineligible for Kapalua _ he decided to skip the first five weeks of the year for an extended holiday.

Furyk did not play until Pebble Beach, and it took him a few tournaments to get going.

“I was a little nervous about being rusty,” he said. “It had been a long time since I played. I seemed to get back into the flow quickly.”

Thursday was more proof of that.

When he finished his final hole at the Transitions Championship with a 10-foot par save for a 6-under 65, he signed for his sixth consecutive round in the 60s. Coming off a third-place finish last week at Doral, he clearly is headed in the right direction.

“I’m obviously very happy with playing such a good round and getting off to a good start,” Furyk said. “Something I can try to build on.”

He was one shot ahead of Stephen Ames, and perhaps it was no coincidence that both played in the morning. The more the sun baked out the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook, the greens became firmer and tougher.

“It’s tough out there. It’s U.S. Open conditions,” Kenny Perry said after a hard-earned 68. “There’s no breather holes out there.”

Furyk won a U.S. Open six years ago at Olympia Fields, the signature win among his 13 career victories. If that seems like a long time ago, even more stunning was this fact that emerged from his 65 in the opening round at Innisbrook.

It was the first time in nearly 20 months that he had the lead on the PGA Tour after any round. That dates to his last victory, the Canadian Open at Angus Glen the final week of July in 2008.

His putter has been the culprit, the case with so many other players, and the few times he did give himself a chance in the final round, he simply didn’t hole enough putts.

“The reality is, I didn’t win. That’s what everyone emphasizes, and I understand why,” Furyk said.

But he worked hard on his aim with the short stick, and is gaining confidence. Furyk didn’t need much help when he started his round on the back nine, making all his birdies from short range.

Then came a sweeping, 35-foot birdie putt that dropped for a 31 to open the tournament, and he birdied the next two holes to separate himself from the early starters. The only bogey came on a poor bunker shot on the par-3 eighth, and Furyk was fortunate not to drop another shot at the end.

“That would have been disappointing after playing so well for the first 16 holes,” he said. “So I felt good about knocking that putt in and having a good start for the week.”

Furyk wasn’t the only player who might have momentum on his side.

Masters champion Trevor Immelman has struggled mightily since his month break after Abu Dhabi, and he might have been forcing it with his defense of a green jacket approaching. Somewhere between the range and the golf course, he lost confidence in his swing. But he had a 72-69 weekend at Doral, played nicely at the Tavistock Cup, and his 68 in the first round was his lowest score of the year.

“It was nice to play like myself again for a change,” Immelman said. “I started feeling a little bit better the last 10 days or so. It was nice to actually go out there and do it on the golf course.”

The large group at 68 included David Toms, coming off a two-week break and starting his three-week bid to get into the Masters. Toms is at No. 66 in the world ranking and needs to get inside the top 50 after Bay Hill next week. That might require a third-place finish, and Toms certainly had few complaints with a bogey-free round.

The longest par putt he faced all day was from 4 feet on his last hole, and getting around Innisbrook without too much stress is rare.

“It’s a lot like major championships out here,” Toms said. “You’ve got to play your way around, and sometimes you can’t go at certain pins. There’s just not a ton of birdies out there.”

Ryo Ishikawa found two of them immediately. The 17-year-old from Japan, in his second PGA Tour start, holed a 15-foot birdie on the par-5 first hole and knocked in a birdie from 12 feet on the second. He didn’t improve on that, however, and wound up with a 69.

Even so, he was in much better shape than Riviera last month, when he missed the cut.

“I was more relaxed compared with my first event,” he said. “The key was the first hole.”

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