Golfer Verplank Takes Lead at FBR Open

Friday, January 30th 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) _ Scott Verplank got the best of a course slanted toward longer hitters, and still didn't like it.

``You know, one day I think guys that change golf courses hopefully will wake up and realize that they need to make it just the same for everybody,'' Verplank said Thursday after firing an opening-round 8-under-par 63 to take the lead at the FBR Open.

Verplank had a comfortable lead most of the afternoon before Phil Mickelson, who won his 22nd tour title at the Bob Hope on Sunday, made a charge that left him one shot back.

Mickelson, a prototypical power player, could hardly tell 127 yards had been added to the TPC of Scottsdale course without changing par.

``It's not playing overpoweringly long,'' he said. ``It's just playing a little bit longer. With the fairways being fast, there aren't really any forced carries other than 13, and you can still go right on 13.''

Mickelson had six of his eight birdies after the turn. He reached the green of the radically lengthened 15th in two shots, as usual. And birdied it, as usual.

The big left-hander, a 1996 winner at the former Phoenix Open, had his worst season last year, falling to 38th on the money list during what turned out to be a 19-month drought between wins before his triumph at La Quinta, Calif., on Sunday. He said every part of his game seems improved this year.

``Something that I've been very pleased with has been my distance control over my irons,'' Mickelson said. ``That was something I did not have last year, but last week I noticed a huge difference where shots were ending up pin-high. Today, I noticed it as well _ where there were some pins that were very tough to get to, but I really felt comfortable that I could get to them.''

Jonathan Kaye shot a 65, with Steve Flesch, Scott McCarron, Rod Pampling, Brenden Pappas, Chris Riley and Jeff Sluman at 66.

The revamped layout proved tricky for some, notably defending Phoenix champion Vijay Singh. He joined 2000 winner Tom Lehman and John Daly as part of a cluster at 71.

Rocco Mediate, who won on this course in 1999 and tops all money-winners at the tournament, carded a 72.

Frost delayed the start 20 minutes, and 25 players, including Mike Weir at 6-under after 17 holes, were stranded when play was suspended because of darkness, needing to finish in the morning before starting Friday's second round.

Icy greens have been a near-perennial problem in the first and second rounds since organizers moved the tournament from downtown Phoenix to the higher-elevation layout in Scottsdale in 1987.

Rampant low scoring was a problem the PGA thought it could fix.

Tour officials, concerned by Mark Calcavecchia's 28-under 256 _ a record for a par-71 course _ in 2001 and Singh's 23-under last year, ordered the course toughened.

Seven holes were changed, and it was lengthened to 7,216 yards, with 57 added at the par-5 No. 15, where the field made 19 eagles, 223 birdies and 29 bogeys last year. The green is surrounded by water, but the hole was so short at 501 yards that most players went for the island on their second shot.

Mickelson, who started on the back nine, used a 4-wood to reach No. 15 in two and birdied. He had another birdie before the turn, then ran off six holes without par _ birdie, bogey (three-putting from 30 feet), birdie, birdie, birdie, birdie. He also birdied the last hole in deep twilight.

Verplank had his eight birdies before reaching the 15th hole and played it safe, finishing with four straight pars.