Howell Leads Chrysler Championship by One

Friday, October 31st 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) _ The PGA Tour shifted 100 miles down the road to another Florida golf resort, only the final full-field event of the season is no vacation.

Charles Howell III realized that long before the Chrysler Championship got under way Thursday at Innisbrook.

During a week off, he decided to drive to the Copperhead course for a practice round, just like some guys do for a major championship. It paid off Thursday in a round of 5-under 66, giving him a one-stroke lead over Dan Forsman.

``It's a total opposite of what we faced last week at Disney,'' Howell said. ``Last week, you knew you had to make a lot of birdies. You felt if you played three holes in a row with three pars, you lost ground.

``If you can make a few birdies out here and hang on, it goes a long way.''

It carried Howell to a first-round lead for the first time since Memorial, and might help him secure a spot in the Tour Championship.

He is 27th on the money list, and the top 30 get to play for a $6 million purse next week at Champions Golf Club in Houston.

``It's important for me to make that,'' Howell said.

Vijay Singh is trying to win the money title, and he would clinch it with a victory this week. The big Fijian had to work for his 1-under 70, making eight par putts from at least 4 feet, and one bogey putt from about 7 feet.

Davis Love III, also desperate to win to keep alive his hopes for PGA Tour player of the year, opened with a 69.

Only two dozen players broke par, and it was not hard to see how that happened.

The fairways are tight and wind through trees and over water. The rough is vicious in spots, and the undulation on the greens kept the players on their heels.

``You've just got to pay attention on every shot,'' Jerry Kelly said after a 68, leaving him tied with Robert Gamez, Chad Campbell and Jose Coceres. ``Even on your layup shots, there is trouble everywhere. There is really not many gimmes out there.''

Phil Mickelson found out the hard way.

The second-ranked player at the start of the year, Mickelson virtually assured himself next week off from the Tour Championship by hitting into the water and into the trees on his way to an 80, matching his highest score of the year.

Lefty also had an 80 in the final round at Pebble Beach.

He is 37th on the money list and needed to finish at least third this week to avoid missing the Tour Championship for the first time since he started playing a full PGA Tour schedule in 1993.

Howell played Innisbrook in junior golf, so he decided to play two weeks ago by himself on a quiet morning.

``The way I looked at it, this is a difficult golf course, and it's worth my time to drive down here and play the golf course,'' he said. ``I enjoy doing that when I can do it. I know a lot of guys do it for majors. Every tournament for me feels like a major.''

Howell got in the hunt with a 3-wood from 245 yards that wound up on the right side of the green on No. 14. He was downhill and with the grain, the kind of putt that tends to trickle some 6 feet past the hole _ unless it goes in.

``I was trying to get the speed right and get the ball close to the hole,'' he said. ``And lo and behold, it was the right speed. It went in the middle of the hole.''

He drove into the water on the 16th and made bogey, then picked up another bogey with what he called ``one of the stupidest course management moves I've ever made.''

Howell hit a 3-iron off the tee on the 455-yard third hole, with water blocking the right side of the fairway, and watched it hop once and take a bath.

``It was such a bad mistake, wasn't even mad about it,'' he said.

Howell recovered with a 40-foot birdie putt on the next hole and then a 35-footer for birdie on No. 7.

He is 27th on the money list, and should be in good shape for the Tour Championship.

Others on various bubbles this week might have to sweat it out.

Rocco Mediate is 30th on the money list but appeared to have trouble moving because of back problems and wound up with a 78.

PGA champion Shaun Micheel is right behind Mediate on the money list by $5,656 _ about half of what they pay here for last place _ but could manage only a 75.

Further down the list, Per-Ulrik Johansson (No. 125) shot a 74. Dicky Pride trails him by $654 and was playing in the group behind, but he wound up matching that score.

Pride wasn't wound up too tight.

On the 12th hole, after Olin Browne and Tim Petrovic hit down the fairway about 10 yards apart, Pride's tee shot landed right between their balls. He raised his arms to signal a field goal. ``It's long enough ... it's good!''

Otherwise, it was a grind, but Pride had no problems with that.

``That's what you want,'' Pride said. ``If you're going to put emphasis on the last tournament of the year for all the different things _ top 30, top 125, whatever _ it should play difficult.''